Al Sargent, chairman of Hardin’s Little Bighorn Days Committee, can barely contain his enthusiasm.
Last summer the annual event commemorating the most storied battle of the Indian Wars experienced a revitalization that he is convinced will lead to even better things in 2013.
“Everything was up substantially last year,” he said. “One of the best things was the 1876 military ball. I’m gonna guess it was up four times over 2011. The church service on Sunday had 10 times the people.”
And the street dance featuring the Nelson Brothers, sons of Ricky Nelson of rock 'n' roll fame, drew a crowd of between 2,600 and 2,700 people, he said.
“The year before, it was 375 to 400,” Sargent estimated. “There is no question we’re getting it back together.”
His committee has signed Confederate Railroad, a county band popular in the 1990s, for the street dance during 2013 Little Bighorn Days.
A new marketing company is on board, and a new director has been hired to stage battle re-enactment performances, which have had a few rough years.
“This year we expect to double the crowd,” he said.
The committee has lined up the U.S. 7th Cavalry Color Guard from Colorado Springs to lead the 2013 parade, and arranged for a group of vintage Lamborghinis from California to follow. Twenty-five to 30 of the iconic sports cars will be on display in a roped-off section of Center Avenue for car enthusiast to ogle.
2012 was a good year for the tourism industry throughout Montana, industry officials say, and they expect at least some growth in 2013.
Preliminary data indicate tourism numbers swelled 3 percent in 2012 with a 15 percent increase in what they spent, said Sarah Lawlor of the Montana Tourism office.
“That’s really encouraging,” she said. “We’re hoping more of the same in 2013.”
The University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research projects a 2 percent growth in out-of-state visitors and a 4 percent increase in their spending. That’s slightly ahead of the 1.2 percent increase in travelers and 3 percent increase in spending that the U.S. Travel Association predicts for the country as a whole.
It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of tourism to Montana’s economy. Recently, UM reported that about 11 million nonresident visitors spent $3.19 billion in the state during 2012. Travel-related businesses purchased another $813 million worth of goods and services and 41,070 people employed directly or indirectly in the tourism industry spent $708 million of their paychecks here.
Not bad for a state with a population of a little over 1 million people.
The rebound from the Great Recession of 2008 has been slow, but evidence of progress was everywhere for Montana tourism in 2012.
All six Montana tourism regions saw increased visitation. In a survey of industry-related businesses conducted by UM, 61 percent reported increases, 19 percent had decreases and 20 percent stayed the same as 2011.
The Southeast Montana Region, which includes Billings and the rest of southeastern Montana, did even better with 70 percent of businesses showing an increase in 2012. In Missouri River Country, which represents the northeastern Montana counties, 71 percent of businesses responding reported increases.
“It was obviously a very good year for us,” said Nick Mann, marketing and public relations manager for Southeast Montana Tourism. “Numbers increased throughout the region.”
Miles City’s Bucking Horse sale was a big success, as was Little Big Horn Days, he said. Two major National Park Service units in the area — Little Bighorn Battlefield and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area — boasted good numbers. Visitation at the battlefield was up nearly 11 percent, while Bighorn Canyon visitor numbers rose 21.6 percent.
Montana State Parks saw a 7 percent increase with 2 million visits. Nonresidents are beginning to discover these lesser-known treasures, according to Montana State Parks. Out-of-state visitors have increased 34 percent in the last five years and now make up 23 percent of state park users.
Montana’s two largest attractions, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, continue on a steady upward course. Glacier Park saw an impressive 16.3 percent increase, probably because the Going to the Sun Highway opened about a month earlier than it did in snowy 2011. Yellowstone reported a 2 percent increase.
Passenger records were set at airports in Billings, Bozeman, Glacier Park and Missoula. And collections of Montana’s 7 percent lodging tax are projected to bring in $40 million.
“There was real growth,” said Stuart Doggett, executive director of the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association. “It wasn’t just in Eastern Montana where the energy industry packs the hotels. It was across the board.”
More demand meant higher charges for motel rooms, which are still inexpensive by most standards, said Mary Paoli of Montana Voices of Tourism, an industry advocacy group. The uptick in visitor spending could also be accounted for in effective state advertising that encouraged people to stay longer, she said.
Good weather, including an early spring, contributed to growth, Lawlor said, as did slightly lower gas prices.
But most of all, it might be a surge in consumer confidence, she said.
“People are feeling more secure in their jobs and have a little more money in their pockets,” she said.
Montana is in a good position to attract vacationers still shaky from recent years of economic turmoil.
“We’re really an affordable destination,” she said. “And Yellowstone is on virtually everyone’s bucket list.”