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Gas prices and inflation could impact summer visitation numbers

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | May 22, 2022 12:00 AM

Tourism industry officials are keeping an eye on the price of fuel and the inflation rate when

looking to predict visitation levels for the upcoming summer travel season.

Variables that may impact travel this summer include fuel prices, inflation, Covid and flight cancellations, according to Diane Medler, executive director for Discover Kalispell.

“We expect a decrease in the number of flights everywhere,” she said during the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce’s May luncheon on Tuesday. “The high cost of lodging and for rental cars is making visitors choose other locations this summer.”

“This summer is kind of unknown at this point,” she added. “Right now reservations are tracking well, but we may very well see a lot of cancellations.”

Over the last 10 years, Glacier National Park has seen a 64% increase in visitation, noted the park’s Interim Superintendent Kate Hammond during the event. The park in 2021 saw its second busiest year on record for visitation.

Hammond says in recent years the trend for national parks and forests, and state parks is an increase in visitation, but what will happen this summer remains to be seen.

“We’re expecting a busy summer season,” she said. “Our reservations in terms of park concessioners are trending strong, but we will have to see how gas and inflation impact our summer visitation.”

Dylan Boyle, executive director of Explore Whitefish, says it’s an interesting time when it comes to predicting summer visitation.

“The best way to describe it is a tug-of-war of a lot of variables, right now there are more questions than answers,” he told the Inter Lake on Thursday. “The tourism outlook is optimistic — the demand for travel is strong going in 2022. People are wanting to travel, but there are worries about inflation, supply chain issues, a possible economic recession and the pandemic. There’s positive demand, but there’s also clouds of uncertainty.”

Now that U.S.-Canada border restrictions revolving around Covid have eased, Boyle says it will be interesting to see if visitors from Canada start returning to the Flathead Valley this summer.

Nearly every state in the country on Wednesday had crossed the $4 per gallon mark for gas. On Friday the national average for regular gas was $4.593 per gallon, while last year it was $3.043, according to figures by AAA. Montana remained below the national average at $4.345 per gallon, but still trending above the average for the same day last year at $2.908.

The inflation rate dipped slightly in April to 8.3%, but remained near a four-decade high.

About six in 10 Americans are planning at least one summer trip, according to April figures released by the U.S. Travel Association, but nearly two-thirds or 63% say rising gas prices will impact their decision to travel.

LAST YEAR, about 12.5 million nonresidents visited Montana, spending around $5.15 billion, according to estimates by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.

The number of travelers visiting the state in 2021 increased 12.5% from 2020, bringing the number nearly back to the pre-pandemic visitation levels. Nearly half of those travelers were here during the third quarter from July through September.

“Overall for 2021, slightly larger group sizes, longer lengths of stay and higher daily average spending per group resulted in the significant increase in spending compared to previous years,” said Jeremy Sage, ITRR interim director, in a release.

Visitors spent the most money on fuel, while restaurant and bar spending and accommodations make up another third of the average daily travel budget for nonresidents, according to the institute.

Visitor spending during 2021 supported an estimated 47,800 jobs directly. Associated with those jobs is $1.3 billion of labor income directly supported by nonresident spending. An additional $734 million of labor income is indirectly supported by nonresident travel spending.

BUT TOURISM fatigue seems to be plaguing at least some parts of the state, including the Flathead Valley.

A University of Montana survey released this spring found that while state residents generally still support tourism there are growing worries about overcrowding and quality of life.

Carter Bermingham, research associate with the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at UM, told those in attendance at Tuesday’s chamber event that the institute surveys residents each year on their attitudes regarding tourism.

The survey found that 71% of Montanans still agree that the overall benefits of tourism outweigh the negative impacts. However, in Flathead County, that number was lower at 52%.

Statewide, 57% said their community is becoming overcrowded because of more visitors in the summer. In the Flathead, that number was 94%.

“Anywhere that’s been shouldering a heavy burden for tourism over the last five to 10 years, this is pretty typical,” he said.

It can be easy to discuss the economic positives of tourism, but there’s also a larger story to the impacts, he noted because having a successful tourism industry means buy-in from residents.

“These are trends that are important to keep in mind when you talk about this type of stress that is put on residents when you do have the economic success of tourism,” he said.

The number of tourists coming to Montana now is about the same as it was in 2019, Bermingham noted, but attitudes about tourism have shifted.

“Having a successful tourism industry means buy-in from residents,” he said. “So keeping these kinds of trends in mind is important.”

FOCUSING ON directing tourism beyond the summer season has come to the forefront as well as visitor management.

The Flathead Valley is a special place, Medler says, and Discover Kalispell continues to be a destination advocate aiming to bolster travel here outside the peak summer season. She points out that the average occupancy rate in winter in Flathead County is 40%, which leaves room to support businesses outside the summer travel season.

“One of our main strategies is based on strengthening the tourism economy while preserving the community’s values and assets,” she said.

Tourism in 2020 brought in $1.1 million to Flathead County and supports 12,000 jobs, she notes, making an impact on providing for a strong economy here.

“We work on visitor management by communicating to visitors when they arrive and presenting them with the right options to minimize their travel footprint,” Medler said. “A big part of that is recreating responsibility.”

Explore Whitefish, Boyle notes, does not market the summer season for travel but works on building the shoulder seasons to support businesses year round. The organization will continue its Be a Friend of the Fish sustainable tourism campaign.

“We try to make sure there’s awareness about treating our community with respect and recreating responsibly,” Boyle said.

Glacier Park saw 3,089,642 visitors in 2021, overtaking 2019’s 3,049,839 for the second-busiest year on record. Spring visitation numbers this year have been slightly down from 2021, but the park is still preparing for a busy summer season.

Glacier is for the second year requiring reservations to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road between May 27 and Sept. 11. The Sun Road ticketing system is one way officials are looking to manage the number of visitors and protect the park.

“We have experienced increased traffic, crowded trails and impacts to park resources,” she said. “So the goal of these reservation pilots is to spread visitation out, prevent gridlock and improve the visitor experience and protect the resources.”

Hammond says Glacier is not alone when it comes to managing an increase in visitor numbers, but the strategies for managing visitors are developed at each park.

“Glacier National Park is one of the crown jewels of Northwest Montana,” she said. “We are tasked with protecting the park’s resources for future generations. And that means both the physical resources — the wildlife, the wilderness characteristics, the scenery — but also the visitor experience.”

Features Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com.

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