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Montana tourism offers a rain check, surveys the damage, and looks to brighter days

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A screenshot from a Glacier Country tourism campaign discouraging out-of-state travel to Montana.

By Johnathan Hettinger MONTANA FREE PRESS

Even as Gov. Steve Bullock announced April 22 that Montana will begin a phased reopening of its economy, uncertainty remains in the tourism industry, one of the state’s largest economic sectors. And at least one Montana tourism agency is actively discouraging visitation. 

The phased reopening will allow some outdoor recreation businesses, like guiding, to return to work, as long as they can maintain social distancing recommendations, but all non-essential travelers coming to Montana, residents and otherwise, are still asked to quarantine for two weeks, and there is no set date for that policy to be lifted, Bullock said. 

“There is no place better, as we all know, than springtime in Montana, and we’re still going to be discouraging [travel] and asking individuals to quarantine,” Bullock said.

Each year, more than 12 million people visit Montana, and the tourism industry employs more than 59,000 people, generating more than $7.1 billion for the state’s economy, according to the Montana Department of Commerce. A study by WalletHub found that Montana is the second-hardest-hit state in the country when it comes to COVID-19’s impact on tourism.

“I recognize that our tourism industry is hurting, but as Montanans have worked so hard to stop the spread of the virus, the first phase isn’t yet the time to allow others to come into our state,” Bullock said.

In an Earth Day celebration on Wednesday, President Donald Trump said he hopes to reopen national parks soon, but both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks remain closed, and currently have no timeline for opening. Bullock said he expects the park service to work with the state as it proceeds through the phased lifting of restrictions.

Xanterra, which operates concessions in Yellowstone National Park, announced this morning that it anticipates reopening its facilities June 15, “based on regional guidelines at that time.”  

Tourism is the factor most likely to lead to a renewed outbreak of COVID-19 in Montana, said Park County Health Officer Laurel Desnick. Last month, Desnick and other neighboring health county officials asked Yellowstone to close due to those concerns.

Desnick said Montana’s success in stemming the spread of COVID-19 — the state has the lowest infection rate and lowest hospitalization rate in the country — is attributable to measures designed to limit person-to-person interactions. 

In an interview Tuesday, Desnick said tourism-related events can spark outbreaks, referencing Florida spring break festivities that spread cases around the country; an outbreak related to ski areas in Vail, Colorado; and a COVID-19 hotspot in New Orleans following Mardi Gras.

“You have tiny microcosms of mixing of people from across the state, the country and the region. As a consequence of that, you have increased infections at the local level, as well as many places that people return to,” Desnick said.

MAYBE LATER

As bars, restaurants and other businesses prepare to reopen, Bullock said he expects travelers to respect the request that out-of-state travelers self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Montana.

The city of Whitefish and Madison County have closed short-term rentals until April 30, after it appeared that out-of-state visitors might be attempting to ride out the pandemic in Montana. 

The Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission, a destination marketing organization for eight northwestern Montana counties, recently released a video titled “Love now. Explore later.” The two-minute ad asks tourists not to come to Montana, for now, due to coronavirus concerns, President and CEO Racene Friede said. 

“It is not natural for us to say, ‘Don’t come.’ It is not in our DNA. Our whole mandate is to market a region as a travel destination,” Friede said. 

But the organization drew on its crisis communications plan, more typically implemented during events like wildfires, and decided it was safer to ask people to stay away, at least temporarily, she said.

“We also didn’t want them to completely not think of Montana,” Friede said. “There is some sensitivity to this, that while we encourage them not to come for our safety and the health of our communities, but once it is safe we will let them know and we will certainly welcome them.”

The organization plans to renew tourism marketing first to Montana residents, who are likely tired of being cooped up and eager to visit other parts of the state, she said. Later, Glacier Country will renew marketing to national and finally international markets, though it may be a while before that happens. 

“We can’t just hit the start button and have a bunch of visitors come, we have to do this gradually,” Friede said.

Friede said she’s hopeful that people will still want to visit Montana when public health considerations allow. So far, she said, interest has remained high. Last week, the organization received more than 10,000 requests for travel packets.

“We really are still front of mind. We want them to come when it’s safe and when we’re ready for it,” Friede said.

DAMAGE AND RECOVERY

Numbers are starting to emerge showing how severely Montana’s tourism economy has been impacted by the coronavirus, Jennifer Pelej, division administrator of the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development, told the Montana Legislature’s Interim Economic Affairs Committee April 9.

From Feb. 8 through March 14, tourists spent between $93 million and $101 million a week in Montana, Pelej said. On March 13, the state reported its first four confirmed cases of COVID-19. The week of March 21, tourists spent $54 million in Montana, and the total dropped to $34 million the week of March 28.

More than 94% of tourism businesses have indicated they have been impacted by COVID-19, according to the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, and 84% have had cancellations. The three highest-grossing categories of travel spending are food, fuel and lodging. Guiding is fourth. 

Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, said fishing and hunting guides can easily maintain six feet of distance among clients, and the lifting of the stay-at-home order will allow outfitters to still have a spring black bear and turkey hunting season, as well as put some fishing guides back to work for local clients.

But still, many industry clients live out-of-state, and continuing self-quarantine requirements for travelers mean the industry can’t predict when it’s likely to return to normal, Minard said. Guides and outfitters are asking prospective clients to take a wait-and-see approach, and will follow public health officials’ recommendations, Minard said.

So far, fall cancellations have been limited, Minard said. Non-resident hunting license applications, which closed April 1, show that more people are interested in hunting in Montana than tags are available, as is usually the case. Even so, there were 7,000 fewer applicants this year than last, he said.

“It’s an indicator it’s not as robust as it was a year ago,” Minard said.

National marketing data shows that people are still expecting to travel this year, Pelej said, and the same data indicates that Montana remains a likely destination.

“There is potential for Montana to be a popular place for people to visit due to a desire to visit places away from crowds,” Pelej said.

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