By Dillon Tabish, 7-26-12
||Caption: Mike Clark, left, paddles out onto Lake McDonald with his 10-year-old son, Caleb Clark, while visiting Glacier National Park from Kentucky. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
While much of the West suffers through a tumultuous summer plagued with wildfires and drought, Northwest Montana is reaping the benefits of a bountiful tourism season.
Visitation at Glacier National Park, often serving as a litmus test for local tourism success, is up 14 percent this year compared to the first six months of 2011. Almost half a million people have entered the park. Despite dampening rain, June saw an 18 percent increase in visitors compared to last year, likely due to the opening of Going-to-the-Sun Road almost a month earlier.
"When that park opens all its doors, it's a huge boon for everyone in the Flathead Valley," said Carol Pike, executive director of the Columbia Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.
Hotel visitation, another barometer, reflects a similar rosy picture for local communities. Accommodation tax revenues, collected from hotel and campground stays, were up 12 percent in Kalispell between January and March compared to 2011, according to the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau. Occupancy rates have been consistently higher than last year, too, said director Diane Medler.
Whitefish saw a 10 percent increase in tax revenues during the first months of the year, while the overall state average was only 2 percent, according to the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In Kalispell, this year is on pace to surpass last year's tax revenues, which were higher than 2010, Glacier's popular centennial year. Nonresident Glacier Park visitors alone spent more than $104.7 million in the valley in 2010, according to a report from the National Park Service.
"Everything is seeing signs of improvement," Medler said. "It's just get ting better and better."
The importance of tourism in Montana, particularly the northwest, cannot be undersold. It's the second-leading industry in the state behind agriculture. In 2011, 10.54 million nonresident visitors traveled to Big Sky Country. An additional 210,000 visitors, a 2 percent increase, were expected this year. Yet the $2.77 billion industry is as fragile as it is powerful. Predictability comes with many variables.
Counties in eastern Montana, as well as states across the West, are experiencing tourism's fickle nature as raging wildfires continue scaring away visitors at the peak of summer travel. Forty-six percent of Montana's total out-of-state visitors, or roughly 49 million people, arrive between the months of July and September.
Though communities in eastern and central Montana have endured smoky skies, a drop in tourism could be abated by the current boom in energy development.
That's not the case in Northwest Montana, tucked far away from the prosperous Bakken oil fields. Agriculture remains powerful here, but other industries like timber and construction have fallen by the wayside, causing some of the highest unemployment rates in the state since 2009. Leaning on two major stalwart amenities, Flathead Lake and Glacier Park, the tourism industry consistently accounts for almost $300 million in revenue to the Flathead economy. Summer is the prime time, too. Forty-five percent of the total annual hotel stays in Kalispell occur in a three-month window, between July and September, according to the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.
"It's huge," President Joe Unterreiner said. "You can see how much of the tourism economy is centered around the summer quarter."
Recognizing this importance, the valley's communities have been trying to solidify tourism's role in the economy, especially during these warm weather months. This year is proving to be a shining example of coalescing success.
"(The communities) have done a good job of extending the summer season and broadening out," Pike said.
Unterreiner said businesses have reported to him "good strong activity and visitation" and hotels are showing "strong advanced bookings."
Mary Witbrod, co-owner of Imagination Station in Whitefish and Kalispell, said both stores have been extremely busy. She equates a large part of that success to recent changes by the Canadian government that increased cross-border spending limits, which allow visitors to purchase more U.S. goods without being taxed on the return home. More than half a million Canadians annually visit Montana.
Kidsports Complex in Kalispell has developed into a regional destination for athletic tournaments. On any given day in June an average of 5,350 people use the fields and another 5,000 on the weekend, according to a survey conducted by the complex's organization in late 2010. Last weekend, the Babe Ruth state baseball tournament drew teams and their families from across Montana to Kalispell.
The Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau has made a push to attract and promote signature events, similar to The Event at Rebecca Farm, which entered its 11th year two weeks ago and drew roughly 19,500 spectators.
Dynamic Dragon Boat Racing, which organizes racing events nationwide, chose Flathead Lake for its latest competition, to be held Sept. 8. Organizers originally predicted to have 34 teams, but 54 teams have already registered more than a month before the event. Medler remembers a conversation she had with the event's director.
"When she saw the venue and where the festival will be, she was just in awe," Medler said. "She said, 'I've never produced a race in a more beautiful spot than this.' She said in two years this will be a two-day festival with over 100 teams."
Similar excitement came from the director of Spartan Race, which organizes nationwide obstacle course competitions and will hold one in the Flathead next year.
"He said this is going to become a destination race," Medler said.
Another key ingredient of vibrant tourism has been nurturing annual community events, such as Bigfork's Whitewater Festival, Columbia Falls' Heritage Days and Somers Cajun Street Fest. New and old gatherings have also been generating excitement, like weekly farmers markets, Arts in the Park and Thursday!Fest.
These aid business interests and exposure, but also offer a less quantifiable reward.
"You really feel a lot of energy in the community by having everybody out," Unterreiner said. "This is just an exciting time of high energy and community spirit."
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