Report: Montanans say state overcrowded with tourists

By: - March 10, 2022 6:13 pm

A view across a lake toward a mountain in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA, circa 1960. (Photo by Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Tourists are wearing out their welcome in Montana — but Montanans still appreciate their money.

That’s according to a recent report by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research called “Montana Residents: Attitudes Towards Tourism 2021.” Among other things, the report found that for the first time since 1992 when the Institute started collecting information, most respondents, 56 percent, agreed that the state is becoming overcrowded with tourists.

“This level of agreement is the highest ITRR has ever recorded,” the report said. “The 56 percent agreement level represents a 33 percent increase from 2020 and a 75 percent increase from 2019.”

The Quarterly Montana Resident Study is based on a survey of 1,941 Montana residents from 52 counties in Autumn 2021. The ITRR describes itself as the research arm of Montana’s tourism and recreation industry and is located at the University of Montana.

This time, the lowest number of Montanans since 2007 agreed that the benefits of tourism outweigh the negative impacts, or 71 percent, according to the report. By region, respondents who agreed or strongly agreed were as follows:

  • Central Montana: 81 percent.
  • Southeast Montana: 80 percent.
  • Yellowstone Country: 78 percent.
  • Southwest Montana: 69 percent.
  • Missouri River Country: 66 percent.
  • Glacier Country: 62 percent.

On the other hand, residents still see the economic benefits provided to their communities, said the report. It counted 83 percent of respondents who agreed or strongly agreed, with Yellowstone Country at the highest level at 88 percent and Missouri River Country with the lowest at 64 percent.

After the Great Recession, the report said it appeared more Montanans were “sanguine” about tourism as a way to bolster the economy and improve quality of life in the state. But it said in 2016, people started thinking differently.

“When analyzing long term trend data, it appears that the attitude of many Montana residents was already shifting before the start of the pandemic,” said the report in a section about crowding. “However, results indicate that the pandemic has only added fuel to the fire, exacerbating the negative trend regarding residents and their perception of crowding in the state.”

The report also said those who commented in the survey said any perceived overcrowding might also be a result of people moving into the state rather than people visiting the state. Citing the Independent Record, the study said the state experienced population growth of 1.7 percent from 2020 to 2021.

Racene Friede, president and CEO of Glacier Country Tourism, said her office has data that mirror the results of the survey on crowding, and it already has been shifting its marketing in response to public sentiment. 

“We’ve been seeing this shift, and in the last couple of years, we no longer can do things like we used to,” Friede said.

Generally, she said they’re moving away from destination marketing to destination management. For example, the office doesn’t actively market packed-to-the-gills Glacier National Park in the summer anymore, she said, but it is encouraging visitors to tread lightly and respect communities. 

In the region last fall, Friede said Glacier Country held meetings in 16 different communities as part of a Destination Stewardship project. The Glacier Country website explains the initiative: “It’s a shift from promoting communities to engaging and stewarding communities, which in turn provides more livable and sustainable destinations.”

Friede said the conversations varied, but tourists are having an impact: “What we found is there are certain times of year where our residents feel overwhelmed, and we get it. We totally get it. We live here too.”

Moving ahead, Glacier Country is working on figuring out what capacity is for tourism during what times of the year. When are there too many people? Too few? Just the right amount?

“We do tourism marketing because that benefits and brings in new money to our economy,” Friede said. “But what we feel is out of balance right now and is what we’re working on is the quality of life for the residents with the quality of experience for the visitors.”

Friede said the economic impact of nonresident travel to Montana is roughly $3.1 billion to $3.7 billion annually, but resident travel is some $1.1 billion a year, and it could grow. Overwhelmingly, communities in Glacier Country said they felt less stressed when visitors were other Montanans, Friede said. She said the sense is that they’re easier to deal with because they know what it’s like to travel around the state.

“We’re chill if the person in front of us at the grocery store is chatting about their new baby,” Friede said. “We’re like, that’s cool.”

Barb Neilan, head of Destination Missoula, said Montana can continue to grow its economy from tourism while still addressing the frustrations of residents who at times feel overrun by visitors. For example, if Missoula can bring more tourists to the state in the winter when hotel occupancy is just 40 percent, and it’s a time residents don’t feel bombarded, it can support businesses without having a negative impact on locals. On the other hand, she said people in eastern Montana aren’t seeing as much of the overcrowding and are still welcoming to tourists.

“So it has made the industry think in a different way and realize that we need to change our thinking from our visitor is our customer to our resident truly is our customer,” Neilan said. “And if we need to be able to make sure that all of the reasons that we all live here are taken care of and balanced with a beautiful visitor experience that helps drive the economy.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”