A camper at Finley Point paddles Flathead Lake at sunset. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)
Fire and smoke are choking out some Montana communities, but mid-year visitation numbers show tourism is thriving, with a record number of visitors flocking to state parks this year.
Visitation to Montana parks so far has increased 11.1% over 2020 and 44.1% over 2019, according to data provided by the University of Montana’s Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research.
Tim Hedin, a guide at Absarokee River Adventures, a whitewater rafting guide company, said that business was good last year and has been even better this year.
“This year it exploded even more; it’s busier than I’ve ever seen. It’s awesome,” he said. “We’ve had to turn people away. No business likes doing that, but we’ve been booked out two to three weeks in advance.”
Many of Montana’s small businesses rely on summer tourism to survive. In 2019, out-of-state guests brought in $3.76 billion in revenue, and even with the travel challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw $3.15 billion of revenue, according to the institute.
Those local businesses have benefited from another busy season this year, with the institute counting a record number of visitors to state parks.
Kara Grau, associate director of economic analysis at the institute, said state park visitation shows an increase of about 1.6 million visitors during the first half of 2021.
But it’s not just state parks, she said.
“A similar trend is being experienced by areas managed by FWP, like fishing access sites, so that gives us some kind of indication of both in-state and out-of-state residents using state parks and fishing access sites,” she said.
With increased visitors to Montana, lodging tax has seen a big boost, with quarter one revenues up 28% from 2020 and up 20% from the same period in 2019.
Grau said that while data comparing fluctuations in tourism and the severity of fire seasons is incomplete, trends suggest that tourists are mostly undeterred in continuing with their travel plans to the state.
“A lot of travelers already have their plans made, and they go ahead and come regardless of the smoky conditions unless they have to change travel plans or arrangements because of actual closures,” she said.
However, wildfires and extreme drought have forced some businesses to make adjustments.
Hedin said business in June is often unpredictable in Montana given changing weather patterns, but this June was exceptionally busy.
“Every day in June was booked. June was a record; July was a record. I don’t think August will be a record, but we’re still busy. We’re just running out of water,” he said.
Melanie West, a manager at Montana Whitewater, said that the company has experienced a similar phenomenon.
“We’ve definitely had a large influx of people and people out here a lot earlier in the season than usual. Normally July and August are usually our busiest months, but it was more of June and July this year,” she said.
But like Hedin, her company needs water, and the state is running out of it.
“The one thing that has affected us, that is kind of linked in with the fires, is drought. We had pretty low water that hit us earlier in the season, so we just had to make some operational changes to deal with that a lot earlier than we’re used to, but we’ve been chugging along.”
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