MISSOULA — Montana's tourism industry might not be seeing the complete "pandemic devastation" we feared in early spring.
But University of Montana researchers say 2020 is still shaping up as one of the worst tourism business years in a decade.
If there was ever a year for camping in Montana, this is it. The re-opening "COVID cascade" at campgrounds -- which started in May hasn't slowed down -- even approaching Labor Day.
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"They were getting crushed early on. As soon as they started opening for day use, people were flocking to them," said Jeremy Sage with the UM Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. At first, that was Montanans getting out to enjoy our nature. Then we started seeing more and more out-of-state plates that were jumping into that mix as well."
But that's one of the few bright spots. Last year, Montana's tourism industry generated $3.7 billion but in 2020 the quarantine hit when the state usually gets 20% of its visitors. While some sectors are recovering, the UM researchers say accommodations, and sit down restaurants, are still hurting.
"So we see some switching from restaurant consumption to grocery store consumption," Sage explained. "Get your gear, your food, and go and eat at your picnic table, camping spot, whatever that might be."
But what about all those "out-of-state" license plates we've talked about? Sage says the current readings don't show anything out of the ordinary, although there may be a trend through the fall.
"I would anticipate though as we have folks around the country that are less likely to fly, they're driving distances increasing a little bit and that willingness to drive is out there," Sage said.
So what happens from here? Montana gets 50% of its tourist traffic in the third quarter -- and with reservations still off by 52% in August and 61% in September -- there's still lots to worry about.
"Yeah, it's definitely going to be a slower recovery. And it's going be time, and really dependent upon what happens as far as our ability to get a vaccine out, and getting this virus under control," Sage told MTN News.
"And really what that's going to come down to -- and always comes down to -- is what does our economy look like? Do people have the confidence in their jobs, their employment to go out and do a big travel experience? If our economy recovers our tourism sector goes right with it," he added.
Sage says a bright spot has been the rebound in visits at Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park which help to drive tourism traffic across Montana.
Another obstacle for tourism businesses has been the challenges in hiring seasonal employees. Sage says many are struggling to find workers because of tighter policies over the J-1 visa program.