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Tourism in Montana

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A slow road to steady growth

Have you ever driven down Highway 200 behind a slow-moving RV with out-of-state license plates? Have you ever gone to your favorite “secret” fishing hole and found a vacationing family - with children splashing in the stream - there before you? Have you ever had to wait to be served at a local café, grocery store, or gas station due to an influx of visitors during tourist season? And have you ever wondered, “What on earth are they doing here”?

    According to Linda Anderson, Executive Director of Glacier Country, what “they” – our visiting tourists - are doing is building tourism into a major economic force in our county. It is now one of our major industries. And Linda predicts tourism offers the promise of playing an even more vital and expanding role in the region’s economic well being in the future.

    Glacier Country is a Montana state-sponsored commission responsible for promoting tourism within an Eight County area. The counties making up Glacier Country include Sanders, Flathead, Glacier, Lake, Lincoln, Mineral, Missoula, and Ravalli. The organization promotes tourism through an aggressive, $500,000 advertising and public relations campaign. Their operating costs are funded by the area’s “bed tax,” formally known as the Accommodation Tax. This tax is collected by area businesses that provide lodging.

    Linda Anderson’s job is to maximize tourism within Glacier Country. She claims she won’t be satisfied until there is a “head in every bed,” year round. And she believes that the economic impact of tourism stretches beyond lodging, restaurants, campgrounds, gas stations and supermarkets. It also filters down to ski resorts, golf courses, retail businesses, art galleries, and eventually to real estate sales.

    Sanders County’s bed tax generated $46,448 in year 2000. The total bed tax generated throughout the eight county region making up Glacier Country, for year 2000, was $3,463,907. Sanders County brought in the smallest amount of money within our region. State-wide, the bed tax generated $11,247,486.

    So who are all these tourists and how much money did they spend in Montana? Visitors to Montana leave over $2 billion per year before returning home. Statistically, the state’s visitors are broken down as follows: 49% are vacationers; 22% are nonresidents visiting friends and family; 11% are business travelers; 9% are visitors passing through Montana; 9% are visitors who are here for shopping, conventions or medical care.

    Tourism is the second largest employer in our state. It employs 28,500 people, and has a $423.4 million annual payroll. In Montana, it is surpassed only by agriculture.

    Glacier Country, through its advertising and direct mail campaigns, receives an average of 4,000 inquiries per month. And its sends out more than 140,000 full-color Travel Guides to parties interested in visiting Montana. Its website can be found at glacier.visitmt.com.

     Sanders County has three representatives; Leslee Smith, Brenda Kuester, and Mary Naegli. Leslee is an owner of a historic hotel located in Hot Springs. Brenda owns Horse Plains Photo Adventures. Mary is a longtime rancher in Trout Creek. She possesses a strong desire to share the beauty of Sanders County with visitors and to help local ranchers derive an alternative revenue source through tourism.

    Nationally, there is a steady growth in adventure travel. This includes hiking, camping, scuba diving, white water rafting and mountain climbing.  Additionally, relaxing at spas is up also. When the economy is depressed, Montana historically has continued to do very well with tourism. And today’s post-September 11th tourist demands safety, away from large cities. Collectively, the eight counties composing the Glacier Country region offer many of these amenities and characteristics.

    One obstacle blocking Sanders County’s efforts to expand tourism is ready capital. According to John Thomas, Branch Manager of Valley Bank of Thompson Falls, our county is viewed as a “pass through” portal only, and not a destination point. He maintains that the banking community wants historical data backing up requests for business loans to build tourism amenities. Right now, he is basically seeing projected forecasts rather than concrete statistics supporting a need for new hotels, restaurants, and resorts. And, John maintains, there is a need to overcome local residents’ fears of sharing natural resources.

    Steve Michaels, President of the Thompson Falls Chamber of Commerce, has been actively working to provide tourist-attracting events. One such event is Heritage Days. Last year, Heritage Days brought 450 people from Sandpoint, Coeur d’Alene, and Spokane to Thompson Falls by railroad. Once here, they were picked up and transported around town by horse-drawn wagons. They shopped at 52 arts & crafts booths, packed local restaurants and visited the beer garden, the Indian Village and the antique car show.  According to Steve, tourist-attracting events provide a cornerstone for expanding the Sanders County tourist industry. The Chamber is also aggressively promoting other tourist-attracting events such as Christmas on Main Street and Random Acts of Kindness.

    Glacier Country is a strong advocate of the concept of family-centered Loop Trips. Loop Trips, done by automobile, involve day trips to communities within a region. Each day of the vacation would allow visitors to experience the unique attractions, restaurants, and accommodations that differ with each town. Sanders County is an ideal place for a Loop Trip. Its scenery varies from the west side’s “banana belt,” through Thompson Fall’s Bighorn Sheep country, the plains of Wild Horse Plains and through Hot Springs’ rolling hills.

    Glacier Country is actively requesting information on attractions in each community that can be forwarded to the thousands of tourist inquiries they receive yearly. They can be reached by phone at 406-837-6211 and by email at [email protected]



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Nancy Lynn Masten

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