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Locals sour on tourism's impact on Whitefish

by MATT BALDWIN
Daily Inter Lake | April 10, 2024 12:00 AM

Local Whitefish residents are increasingly at odds with the tourism industry’s impact on the city, even as visitation levels have tapered off since the frantic summers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Results from a survey conducted by the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau last fall indicate that only 22% of respondents agreed with the statement that tourism makes Whitefish a good place to live. That compares to 54% who disagreed with the sentiment.

The bureau last week presented the survey’s findings during a public meeting at City Hall.

Survey respondents listed tourism’s most negative impacts as the proliferation of short-term rentals, traffic and difficulty protecting natural resources.

The top benefits were the city’s resort tax revenue, the economic boost and a thriving downtown. 

Explore Whitefish Executive Director Julie Mullins said the tourism bureau’s goal is to balance resident’s desire for an authentic community while leveraging the economic benefits of visitation.

“We have a responsibility to make sure when visitors come in, it’s not disruptive,” she said.

However, she said, the economic benefits of tourism can’t be overlooked as an important tool that “keeps Whitefish thriving.”

Mullins also noted that there is a misperception among locals that Whitefish no longer has so-called shoulder seasons between the summer and winter peaks.

Data she shared showed hotel occupancy rates of 30% in November, compared to 70-80% in summer.

“We do have sell-out days, but overall they’re not selling out,” she said of hotels.

According to Mullins, some of the impact is from the recent influx of new residents, not visitors.

THE COST of living in Whitefish surfaced as top concern among participants in the event’s panel discussion with local residents.

Brad Thompson, who has lived in Whitefish for about four years, noted there was a sense of “fear and animosity” among his peers when considering their future in the city.

“People don’t know if they can make it work here,” Thompson said. “[Whitefish] is on the map now, and I don’t know if there’s any coming back from that.”

He said a number of his friends have left Whitefish for more affordable communities.

“I worry that the soul of Whitefish is just going to go away,” Thompson said.

Likewise, Whitefish High School student Hannah Gawe said her peers were also worried about whether they could return to their hometown to start careers or a family.

“I’m only 17, but already I’m getting worried about housing,” she said.

City Councilor and former mayor Andy Feury brought some perspective on how tourism helped the town emerge from a stagnant economy in the 1980s. He said business owners who can recall those thin years are thankful for Whitefish’s current year-round economy.

“We benefit tremendously,” he said of visitation.

Still, Feury said the attitude of new residents has shifted over the decades as Whitefish’s notoriety has grown on the national and international stage.

Whitefish used to be a community where “the people who came here were cool,” he said.

Now, Whitefish is looked at as “a place where people come to be cool,” he said.

“That’s a big change in the mindset in this community and quite frankly it’s one of the most frightening things I’ve seen happen.”

Brian Schott, chair of the Whitefish Sustainable Tourism Management Plan Committee, said they would use the survey results and feedback at the meeting to update the plan adopted in 2020.

“We’re trying to create a holistic picture of our community,” he said.