Fewer tourists in 2018, but they spent more money

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A couple watches the sunset over Lake McDonald in this file photo.

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.”

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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