Montana sees a rare decline

Published May 1, 2009  | May 2009 issue

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For Montana, which has seen steady growth in visitation in the past 20 years, last year’s nearly 4 percent drop in travelers from outside the state was a heavy blow (see chart). Fewer visitors undercut the business of hotels, motels and resorts. Compared with 2007, statewide lodging demand last year was down over 2 percent, and the decline was particularly acute in late summer and fall; in November the year-over-year drop was almost 13 percent. For the most part that pattern held in Billings, Great Falls and Missoula.

Chart: Montana Nonresident Visitation, 1998-2008

There was also anecdotal evidence of lower demand for skiing accommodations in the state last winter; at the Big Sky ski resort, bookings received through year’s end were running 12 percent below 2007 levels.

People who did visit Montana in 2008 spent less, on average, than they did a few years ago. A third-quarter survey of travelers conducted by tourism researchers at the University of Montana found that compared with the same period in 2005, average per-visitor spending fell 15 percent, with large decreases in outlays for retail goods, outfitters and guides, auto rental and entrance fees.

However, statewide leisure and hospitality employment increased last year. In past recessions in Montana, tourist-oriented job loss has lagged behind drops in visitation and lodging demand.