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Glacier Country Tourism shifts gears to create plan aimed at managing growing tourism

Whitefish Pilot | November 10, 2021 1:00 AM

The Flathead Valley has become a tourist destination sought by travelers near and far.

Roads are clogged with traffic, there is increasing litter on the trails, and restaurants and shops are overwhelmed with customers far greater than what their limited number of staff can handle. There’s been a shift regarding tourism here and in other Western Montana communities as of late, and that change is something that Glacier Country Tourism recognizes and is working to manage.

Glacier Country Tourism is a regional nonprofit organization formed in 1987 with a focus on promoting Glacier National Park and the surrounding area. Five years ago the organization stopped promoting the park in the peak summer season, and now it is working to ensure economic sustainability while preserving the quality of life for residents and quality of place for visitors across Western Montana.

Last week representatives from the organization hosted a town hall meeting in Columbia Falls aimed at gathering input from community stakeholders on both the benefits and challenges stemming from tourism. Over 60 residents, business owners and community representatives attended.

The organization is conducting meetings both in-person and virtually across the eight Western Montana counties it represents as part of a year-long planning process to form its Destination Stewardship Plan. Glacier Tourism plans to use this as an action plan to guide their work for the next 10 years.

“Destination stewardship is this process with which we, instead of going status quo doing things like we always have been, we are now engaging with the stakeholders… because ultimately we want to maintain the cultural, environmental, economic, aesthetic integrity of our destination, the state, our region and our counties,” Glacier Country Tourism President CEO Racene Friede said on Thursday at Cedar Creek Lodge.

Glacier Country Tourism presents the term destination stewardship as a way to balance visitor growth with the long-term health and spirit of the community, the natural resources in the area and the quality of life for residents. Destination stewardship expands on just promoting or managing tourism in a destination by the process of engaging and stewarding communities, the organization states.

A consultant on the project Jim McCaul, senior vice president with MMGY NextFactor firm, defined the process as an approach that considers how to balance the needs of visitors with the needs of the residents.

“When we talk about supporting a thriving visitor economy, we acknowledge that yes tourism adds economic benefits to the destination… but we’re looking for how we can build tourism in a way that adds value beyond just the economic impact,” McCaul said. “How can we build a tourism industry that helps support conservation, helps protect the sense of place rather than change it… invite visitors that want to engage with the local customs and culture and traditions rather than force their outside perspectives on the destination?”

When asked what destination stewardship meant to them, attendees of the meeting had varied answers. Some expressed that it was just a “buzzword” phrase sugarcoating the underlying issues. Others said it was attracting responsible visitors, or working to make sure travelers are engaged, respectful and contribute to the local area rather than just taking from it.

More conversations throughout the meeting touched on several aspects of responsible tourism. Consultants for the tourism organization who are assisting in forming the plan led the those in attendance in small group discussions about what type of visitors would be best to attract to the area and how to reach them, how to improve visitor and resident experiences alike and what times of year does the valley need more visitors, if any.

Common concerns brought up revolved around wanting tourists to be more engaged with the place they are visiting, being more respectful and becoming educated about the area and way of life here.

“What we really want is the appreciation for our area and the respect for the area, that’s why we all came here and I think we just want to impart that to visitors,” one attendee said.

People also had several ideas of ways to make both visitor and resident experiences better during peak tourism in the valley. Many people focused on messaging and ways to inform tourists, and also newer residents, about the way of life in Western Montana. One group suggested a volunteer ambassador program to help visitors find their way and several other people said the experience for the visitor will improve if the residents are taken care of in terms of living conditions including having affordable housing.

“I think you have to create communities that work for the people that live there and not just cater to the visitor,” a community member said.

The town hall meeting was not aimed at answering all the questions surrounding sustainable tourism, but Glacier Country Tourism representatives said the purpose was to gather real concerns, ideas and potential solutions from stakeholders in the community.

The next step in the destination stewardship planning process will be to engage with more stakeholders via focus groups and one-on-one interviews, as well as continue to promote the resident and stakeholder surveys. Then Glacier Country Tourism plans to work with the consultants on the project to analyze the key takeaways before moving to develop the plan.

“We must now begin to measure success against the overall wellbeing of our destinations,” Friede said. “It’s more about how to be thoughtful about the quality of the visitor while balancing that with the quality of life of the resident. That’s where this major process we’re doing right now comes into play.”

Glacier Country Tourism is holding a virtual town hall for Flathead County on Thursday, Nov. 18 from 10 a.m. to noon. To sign up for the town hall, take a resident survey or for more information, visit glaciermt.com/stewardship