MISSOULA — Travelers flying to Montana for a taste of the outdoors has been one of the real bright spots in recent years, helping the state's tourism sector generate a record $3.7 billion last year. But the COVID-19 pandemic has parked most of those planes.
"The airline industry is going to be the one that lags the most," Dr. Jeremy Sage, a researcher at the UM Institute for Tourism & Recreation, said. "So those visitors that are coming via air travel are going to be the ones that are slowest to resume."
"Nobody is booking," Norma Nickerson, the UM Institute for Tourism director, added. "So then you have the airlines trying to figure out how many planes do we then send to each of these communities? So it's going to be hard and it's going to be a really interesting way in which they're trying to model that consumer who's finally ready to get on an airplane. So then 'how many planes do we send to Missoula, or too Bozeman, or Kalispell'?"
While there are questions in the air, the answers might be on the ground.
For small communities like Darby that depend on the tourist trade through the summer months there is some feeling of optimism. It's driven largely by the old standby. In state tourism. And some businesses are already adjusting, putting out the welcome mat as marketers shift their message, targeting travelers within a couple days drive.
"We are all going to be a little cooped up," Racene Friede, the Glacier Country tourism president CEO, said. "We're going to be ready to get out and do some things after we're out of this. And so we're going to also be looking at a drive market. That's who we're going to be talking to. And that includes Montanans."
"I think we're all itching to go out and do something. So there's some latent demand that's setting out there, waiting to be taken," Sage added. "And it might be that drive market, where "oh, we're gonna go to Montana'."
This may be where Montanans can really make a difference by spending those vacation dollars that they may have left, or stimulus dollars -- or whatever -- it is right here in the state, right?
"Right," Sage said. "And as we think about what part of Montana might be as far as a drive market, this does include Montanans driving about their own state as well."
"We are definitely a traveling group within Montana already and I think that will continue," Nickerson added, "It'll be a good thing. It just doesn't create economic boom for the state. But it doesn't create a loss."
The UM researchers say it's too soon to know whether falling gas prices might also make Montana a more desirable vacation destination, especially for northwest travelers this summer.
There are also factors like how much discretionary spending vacationers may have this year, and the depth and length of a recession.