Sacrifice Cliff forms a backdrop

Sacrifice Cliff forms a backdrop as tourists mix with commuters on Interstate 90 through Billings in this 2012 file photo. In 2017, Montanans spent $2.87 billion seeing their own state.

A new study shows Montanans are a key contributor the state’s travel and tourism industry, spending nearly $2.9 billion on day and overnight trips within the state during 2017.

City-type activities like shopping and dining topped the list, according to the report “Resident Travel in Montana,” published June 30 by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research:

  • Shopping helped attract nearly $225 million in resident travel spending in Yellowstone County, the most, together with Missoula County, of any of Montana’s 56 counties.
  • Special dining ranked high in Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, Great Falls and Kalispell-Whitefish-Big Fork.
  • Local breweries were a draw to each of the state’s biggest communities, with 11 to 23 percent of in-state travelers reporting tipping a beer mug.
  • Sporting events (5-15 percent of travelers), festivals or special events (9-14 percent) and family events (5-15 percent) were also popular draws for Montanans traveling outside their county.

Based on a sample size of more than 10,000 travelers from every Montana county, report authors Kara Grau, Norma Polovitz Nickerson, Jeremy Sage and Megan Schultz estimated that Montana residents traveled for day trips over 13.5 million times and made slightly over 4 million overnight trips within the state. Nearly $1.7 billion was spent on day trips, with another $1.2 billion spent on overnight trips.

Business trips contributed nearly $1.4 billion to travel spending. Leisure trips accounted for another $1.1 billion, while other kinds of trips — medical, shopping and the like — totaled nearly $375 million.

“While nonresidents play here and drop billions of dollars in our state as well, the contribution of residents traveling within Montana provides an impact simply because we stay local, our money stays in-state,” the report authors said.

Other benefits to “staycations” include they’re more sustainable for the environment (less travel, less emissions) and they provide Montanans an opportunity to learn about their own backyard, the authors said.

Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings, called in-state travel "critical to Montana's economy."

"Heading into a legislative session, being able to ensure our lawmakers have access to this type of tourism data is key," she said in an email. "As residents, we understand the importance of agriculture, energy, health care, financial and education sectors of the state's economy, but it's important we recognize tourism within the list. Tourism in Montana and Billings is a catalyst to connect communities and plays a significant role in trade and industry."

Surprising travel trends

According to the study, the fourth-quarter months — October through December — saw the most spending for all types of day trips, while the highest months for business and leisure spending were during the months of July through September.

The highest percentage of all travel dollars were spent in Glacier country and southwest Montana. In all, 50 percent of day trip spending and 48 percent of overnight travel dollars were spent there.

Day trip spending in Yellowstone country travel region, which excludes Yellowstone County, totaled more than $284 million during 2017, with overnight trips adding another $202 million to the region’s economy.

Day trippers to southeast Montana, which includes Yellowstone County, spent more than $283 million. Overnight travelers spent more than $201 million. In all, 2.3 million day trips to southeast Montana were reported and 670,000 overnight trips.

That region received 17 percent of resident spending in Montana and 16 percent of resident overnights. Yellowstone County received more than three-fourths of the region’s overnights followed by 6 percent in Custer County and 4 percent each in Big Horn and Dawson counties.

Overnight travelers to the southeastern region plopped down nearly $62 million in restaurants and bars, nearly $46 million on fuel and more than $31 million on lodging or camping.

More than 1.54 million day trips were made to Yellowstone County. Gallatin County was the second most popular day trip destination, with about 1.48 million. Missoula County was third, with about 1.35 million day trippers.

Yellowstone County also received the most overnight trips from Montanans, about 526,000. Missoula County was second, with nearly 504,000. Gallatin County was third, with more than 490,000 overnighters.

Yellowstone County captured more than 13 percent of all resident spending during 2017. Of the 526,000 or so overnighters, 97 percent laid their head in Billings.

Day trip and overnight spending in central Montana was nearly $415 million. In Missouri River country, that spending totaled $75.6 million.

Residents on day trips spent the most on fuel (about $492 million), followed by what they spent on retail (nearly $475 million). Those on overnight trips spent the largest portion of their budget on restaurants and bars (almost $372 million) and fuel (nearly $274 million).

Among overnight travelers, those on business trips had the longest average trip length, 3.17 nights away from home while in Montana. That was nearly a full night longer than the average length of other trips, 2.21 nights.

Scenic driving was the most reported activity for those on leisure trips, mentioned by 35 percent of respondents. Day hiking was next at 19 percent, while special dining out was a 17 percent and watching wildlife and recreational shopping was an activity of 16 percent of respondents.

Including both resident and nonresident travel spending, total travel industry spending in Montana was $6.23 billion in 2017. Nonresidents contributed 54 percent of that, or about $3.4 billion. Montanans spent the remaining nearly $2.9 billion, or 46 percent.

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.