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Montana tourism on the rise

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By Maria Wyllie
Explore Big Sky Associate Editor

Summer tourism in Montana is up over previous years, according to recently released second quarter numbers for the state, and July and August numbers for Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.

“The numbers look good compared to the second quarter from last year,” said Daniel Iverson, public information officer for the Montana Office of Tourism in Helena. “We are up for total visitation by about 3 percent, which represents approximately 87,000 [more] visitors for the second quarter.”

The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana in Missoula tracks visitation numbers for the state. Second quarter numbers are recorded from April through June.

Glacier National Park had nearly 700,000 recreational visitors in July, up 8.4 percent from July 2013 and the highest on record. August was another record month for Glacier, according to the National Park Service, with 675,000 guests – a 7.8 percent increase over 2013. Year-to-date visitation for the park is up 5.7 percent compared to this time last year.

Yellowstone National Park saw more than 850,000 visitors in July, an increase of 5.7 percent from last July’s total. August visitation was up 6.7 percent, to nearly 775,000 visitors in 2014 and year-to-date visitation in Yellowstone is 6.4 percent greater than this time last year. The National Park Service tracks visitation numbers in the parks.

Al Nash, spokesman for Yellowstone National Park, said the park doesn’t have a mechanism to predict numbers, but with numbers for May-August up over the same period last year, he doesn’t expect September to be any different.

“We have consistently experienced 3 million or more recreation visits a year for several years and we are certainly on track to see another 3 million-plus year,” Nash said.

Barbara Shesky, executive director of the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce, said the numbers for Yellowstone’s north entrance are also up, and that they’ve seen an increase in visitation from Asia.

“It’s my understanding that for one of the first times China has a middle class, so they are now able to travel more since they have more disposable income,” Shesky said.

Gardiner has maintained its small, western feel Shesky says, an attribute she hears visitors remark on regularly. However, the town is about to experience some changes as the Gardiner Gateway project moves out of the design phase and into the construction phase, in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, in 2016.

“There are lots of plans in place in conjunction with NPS for work being done around the entrance to address different tourism safety concerns,” Shesky said. Work will extend onto Gardiner’s Main Street and the rest of the town with an amphitheater at Arch Park, improved roads and walkways, and a welcome center with public restrooms, among other projects.

“Our hope is to have the signature event here on Aug. 25, 2016, so I would suspect that tourism would continue to increase,” she said.

West Yellowstone has also seen an increase in tourism this summer with the busiest months being June through August. Numbers for September and October have increased the past few years as well, with more international travelers and adventure seekers who prefer visiting in the shoulder seasons, according to Wendy Swenson, marketing director for the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.

“The West gate has recorded increased traffic over previous years, with the biggest jump being in busses,” Swenson added. “Our resort tax collections are tracking 6 percent over 2013 and our lodging tax collections are up as well.”

With two new lodging properties opening in the area next spring, Swenson anticipates even more visitors will stay in West Yellowstone.

“Usually if national parks are doing well, the whole state is doing well,” Iverson said.

Third quarter visitation numbers for Montana are expected be released in mid-October, according to Iverson, which should offer a clear statewide picture of the 2014 summer travel season.

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