Visitor count down, but spending up last year

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Traveler spending in the Treasure State increased in 2018 while the number of visitors dropped slightly.

An early estimate report by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research shows approximately 12.2 million nonresidents visited the state in 2018, spending $3.7 billion.

The number of visitors is a 2 percent dip compared to 2017. Those visitors spent 10 percent more than in 2017, however.

Visitor spending last year supported more than 58,000 total jobs and 42,700 jobs directly. Out of those jobs is more than $1.1 billion of labor income directly supported by nonresident spending, and an additional $622 million of labor income is indirectly supported by visitor spending, according to the institute.

Nonresidents also contributed more than $227 million in state and local taxes last year.

The same story seems to be true in Whitefish, Dylan Boyle, executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau, said.

While the city doesn’t yet have its full visitor numbers from ITRR, Boyle said what happens statewide is a good indicator for Whitefish.

“When I see what happened last year from the statewide level is steady visitation with a significant increase in expenditures. You’re talking 10 percent increase in expenditures,” Boyle said. “That’s always for me a good indicator and really a good recipe for a sustainable tourism economy in general.”

Boyle said Whitefish saw about a 7 percent increase over last year in lodging occupancy within city limits, even with a roughly 7 percent dip in August due to smoke and wildfires in Glacier National Park.

However, Whitefish — and Glacier — rebounded well in the fall.

In the park, recreation visits dropped about 26 percent compared to the previous August, but saw increases of 11 percent in September, 9 percent in October and 32 percent in November.

In addition, passenger volume at Glacier Park International Airport rose by about 14 percent last year, expected to be an all-time record, and the addition of three daily summer flights from American Airlines and a new Allegiant flight to Phoenix.

Along with the strong fall shoulder season, Boyle said Whitefish did well in the spring also.

In terms of resort tax collections in Whitefish, Boyle said the spring quarter saw a 12 percent increase over last year.

A big part of that is promoting the experience of biking the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier before the road opens to vehicles in the early summer.

“What we’re seeing there is that year over year is the awareness that biking Going-to-the-Sun Road is an experience that can’t be had anywhere else in the world,” Boyle said. “The awareness is building and that’s something we’ve been trying to build that awareness of within our target markets for the spring. It’s definitely becoming a seminal experience and something that people are really seeking out.”

Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, said he’s been hearing positive comments from local business owners as well.

“It was not a record-breaker, but it was a strong year. We continued to do well,” Gartland said. “I think we were somewhat affected by the fires this summer, as we have the last couple years, but what we’re hearing from folks is that it was on track with what they expected.”

Gartland said while the dips in August due to fires has been unfortunate, he’s been seeing both travelers and businesses start planning ahead.

In some cases it’s hearing visitors consider coming to Whitefish in May and June rather than July or August, and on either side people seem to be adapting to the “new norm.”

However, worrying about wildfire is nothing new for local business owners.

“Fire has always been a factor for us, as long as we’ve been a resort community,” he said. “We just have to continue to adapt to what the weatherman deals us.”

Looking to 2019, both Gartland and Boyle said they’re expecting another strong year for Whitefish, especially with more visitors coming in from the airport and the trend of stronger shoulder seasons.

Even with fires, the last thing they’re worried about is summer visitation.

“We’re going to be full, it doesn’t matter what happens,” Gartland said.

The ITRR figures will be updated this spring, with the most recent fourth quarter data from 2018 replacing the 2017 fourth quarter data used in these early estimates. The preliminary report can be found at http://itrr.umt.edu/files/2018-nonres-estimates-prelim.pdf. All information and reports published by ITRR are available online at http://www.itrr.umt.edu.

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