One of the most important Made in Montana exports doesn’t involve loading commodities on trains, jumbo jets or pipelines. In fact, this product is consumed without ever leaving the state.
In case you’re stumped, we’re talking tourism. The University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research reports that international visitors spent nearly $440 million in Montana last year.
Discussions of Montana exports usually focus on commodities such as wheat, coal and beef. But those products are just one piece of the puzzle. Services such as financial services, telecommunications and, yes, tourism play an increasingly important role in international trade.
When tourism is part of the equation, a snapshot of Montana’s foreign exchange looks quite a bit different. Only bulk wheat, at $929 million, accounted for more in export sales than tourism last year, state officials say.
Montana’s scenery has been captivating nonresident travelers since the days of Lewis and Clark, so classifying tourism as an export is another way of describing an important, traditional industry.
National travel organizations have been describing foreign tourism as a “service export” more frequently in recent years. Main Street Montana, a statewide business plan from Gov. Steve Bullock’s Administration, also makes note of that, said Mike Garcia, director of Voices of Montana Tourism.
Tourism is also growing nationwide, and it’s seen as a key factor in the economic recovery. International visitors spent a record $180.7 billion on U.S. travel and tourism-related goods and services in 2013, an increase of more than 9 percent from the previous year. On average, international visitors spent nearly $1.3 billion more a month in the United States than they did the previous year, the U.S. Commerce Department announced earlier this year. The Obama Administration has established a goal of attracting at least 100 million international visitors by 2021.
There’s also good reason for marketing to international travelers, Garcia said. Last year, international travelers comprised about 10 percent of the state’s 11 million tourists, yet they accounted for about 20 percent of tourism expenditure.
“That’s a huge win for Montana,” Garcia said. “Foreign travelers are spending 1.5 to two times as much per visit.”
So the next time you’re listening to the cacophony of languages being spoken at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, keep in mind that those people are playing an essential role in one of the state’s iconic industries.