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More than 10 million people from outside Montana visit our great state every year. Among those visitors, 39 percent were primarily vacationers traveling in 1.6 million groups through our state.

It’s no surprise that the visitors’ most popular destination is Yellowstone National Park (visited by 74 percent of vacationers) followed by Glacier National Park (visited by 40 percent.) The No. 3 Montana vacation attraction is a short drive from Billings in southeast Montana: Little Bighorn Battlefield (visited by 16 percent).

However, vacationers surveyed in 2010 reported spending only 7 percent of their Montana nights in Custer Country, the tourism region that includes the national battlefield, Billings and southeastern Montana. All these statistics were compiled by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.

When the institute asked thousands of visitors what they did in Montana, the most popular activity was scenic driving, followed by wildlife watching and nature photography. More than half of vacation visitors engaged in those activities.

We Montanans know that people don’t have to drive to Yellowstone National Park to view beautiful scenery, which abounds in Eastern Montana, or to watch deer and antelope or photograph wild horses. All those things are available in the Billings and southeastern region.

Furthermore, every activity that the institute lists as vacationer favorites is available in this region, except for skiing/snowboarding, which is next door in Red Lodge.

This information from the UM institute indicates opportunities for expansion of the tourism industry in our region. Visitor interests are diverse. If the Billings region markets its varied attractions, it could see people staying extra nights here on their way to or from Yellowstone.

Custer Country research

The new leadership of this tourism promotion region has taken market research a step further. The old “Custer Country” name doesn’t test well, according to research conducted for the tourism region by MercuryCSC of Bozeman. The firm sought input from Custer Country partners as well as the traveling public. The verdict: Telling travelers you’re in Montana is the most important marketing point. Moreover, most other states name tourism regions according to directions, such as “north” or “east,” rather than using more creative names.

The Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes, whose lands are within this tourism region, object to naming it for the cavalry leader defeated in 1876. Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office called for a new name. Some members of the public surveyed find the name offensive.

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Simply southeast Montana

Additionally, the research shows that the simplest name, perhaps “southeast Montana” would be the best moniker for marketing. That’s what a tourism region is for: promoting visits to our area.

The five-member committee was right on this week when it unanimously recommended a name change. We commend the panel and the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce for gathering data upon which to base that recommendation.

This tourism organization has opened a new chapter in professionalism and inclusive partnerships since the state contracted with the Billings Chamber. A new name is a logical and data-based move.

Billings and southeast Montana are building momentum to boost tourism. Soon the region will have new name. If it’s plain, clear and descriptive, it will be a good change.

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