Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Tourism gives us the FITs

by Margaret E. Davis
| February 26, 2023 12:00 AM

This time of year finds us hunkered down, but the travel pros are revving up, hoping to capture the FITs of the future.

That’s the Foreign Independent Travelers. Chances are, you’ve met them. For sure, you have benefited from them.

These are the visitors who come to Montana seeking the wide open spaces, small towns and authentic experiences of the “Great American West,” as our region has branded itself. In international markets, Montana now comes packaged with Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas, according to Kim Birrell, travel trade manager with the Montana Office of Tourism.

I learned as much at the International Traveler Rebound Workshop late last fall at Homewood Suites, where promoters talked up the allure of our destination, and the allure of luring visitors to our destination.

Plunking down hundreds of dollars a day, the FITs stay longer and seek more.

“They’ve sacrificed a lot and they’re thinking, I deserve a vacation,” Birrell said.

Acknowledging the decline in tourism in Northwest Montana from 2021, Debbie Picard of Glacier County Tourism pinned hopes on international travelers. “We have missed them,” she said. “They want to learn. They pick up their trash.”

Most of the focus of Montana travel promoters abroad aims at Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Germans average 35 to 44 days off annually, and spend between $300 and $350 per day. Australians and Kiwis spend $500-plus per day.

No one wants to be treated like a walking wallet, but curiosity about our Western world is an economic driver for our area, which tourists are keen to see after “Yellowstone” and after having visited New York or Disney. When the FITs finally get to Montana, it’s usually not their first time to the United States.

A month later, at a Discover Kalispell event that touched on the impacts of tourism, consultant Cathy Ritter of Better Destinations cited findings from a study about hospitality.

Turns out tourists don’t really care about VIP perks. What was most important was that they were accepted for who they are, and they felt that someone genuinely cared about their experience.

I love to travel. When I was studying abroad, I went with a friend to see Stonehenge. Our bus only took us so far, and we walked the rest of the way in a drizzling rain at twilight. The guard at the gate, flanked by Dobermans, informed us it was closed for the night, and we turned away for the wet journey back to the hostel.

Footsteps chased us down. “Do you want to see it?” the guard said, then led us back to the ring of massive stones. He let down the ropes, told us stories, and made our night.

We practically skipped away from Stonehenge, never mind the pitch black and driving rain. A taxi pulled over; we refused the ride as we had no money for it. The driver said to get in anyway: “You’ll just have to duck as I go past my boss’s house. I have my For Hire light on and he can’t see I have passengers.”

To this day I smile at mentions of Stonehenge. It reminds me of people who accepted me as I was, and cared about our quest.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com.

Recent Headlines