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Midway Geyser Basin
Ignoring the signs that instruct visitors to stay on the boardwalks, these tourists encourage each other to do what it takes to get the photo. The group was at Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. For the first time, visitation to the park topped 3 million in the first nine months of the year.

Montana's summer tourism season wasn't as bad as expected - and was far better than in surrounding states and most of the rest of the country.

It helped that visitor numbers at the major national parks in Montana soared above those for the 2008 season.

Visitation was bolstered by locals vacationing closer to home and by publicity sparked by filmmaker Ken Burns' PBS documentary featuring the nation's parks as "America's Best Idea," said Betsy Baumgart, administrator of the Montana Promotions Division.

Yellowstone Park is on track to break previous visitation records. For the first time, more than 3 million people were counted in the first nine months of the year. Numbers were up 8.7 percent over the same period in 2008.

Year-to-date figures at the end of September showed 13.4 percent more visitors to Glacier Park than last year. Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area welcomed 19.5 percent more people. The latest figures for Little Bighorn Battlefield, through the end of August, showed a 9.8 percent increase.

A troubled economy, fraught with high unemployment and job insecurity, did put a damper on the number of travelers statewide, and probably affected how much they spent, tourism officials say. But it could have been worse.

"We're pretty encouraged that our numbers were not quite as down as we expected," Baumgart said.

And southeastern Montana had a stronger year than the rest of the state, said Jim Schaefer, executive director of Custer Country, the tourism region that includes Yellowstone and 21 other counties at this end of the state.

"Overall, we were pretty happy," he said.

Custer Country's better-than-expected summer reflects the steady Billings market, as well as a healthy year in Miles City, Schaefer said.

"Miles City was an especially bright spot," he said. "They were up about 5 percent in lodging. They did real well with the Bucking Horse sale and then they had the 125th anniversary of the Montana Stockgrowers Association."

When comparing room sales in August with August 2008, Billings was up 0.3 percent in 2009, said John Brewer, executive director of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce. Compared with nine other cities in what the Chamber calls Billings' "competitive set," the fractional increase was cause for celebration. On average, those cities - including Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula in Montana; Madison, Wis.; Bismarck, N.D.; and Sioux Falls, S.D. - saw room sales decline 2.1 percent.

Statewide at the end of August, hotel occupancy was down between 5.5 and 6 percent, said Stuart Doggett, executive director of the Montana Innkeepers Association. For the region, occupancy was down 13 percent and for the nation, 10 to 10.5 percent, he said.

Deep discounts and packages helped keep occupancy from falling further. Billings did better than most, he said, while the Flathead area was hit hardest.

A major indicator of how well the tourism industry is doing is Montana's bed tax collections. So far, only the numbers for the first two quarters of the year are in and they weren't especially impressive.

Yellowstone logs record

Yellowstone Park had a record September. The park counted about 490,000 visitors, or 11.9 percent more than September 2009.

Gordie Blevins, who owns T-shirt shop C.C. Legends in Red Lodge with his wife, Maggi, can attest to a trend toward shoulder season visitors.

"Business was down 27 percent from January to July," he said. "It was down about 7 percent in August and in September it was up 35 percent."

Blevins said that he thought the number of tourists through Red Lodge was about the same as in recent years, but the traditional family-oriented summer visitors didn't spend as much.

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On the road again

One area that boomed through the summer was camping, tourism officials say.

For KOA, the nation's largest chain of campgrounds, the year has been "really good," said Mike Gast, company vice president for communications.

"We thought we'd be the first impacted by the recession and the first one to come out of it," he said. "People are moving again."

He has noticed trends such as people traveling shorter distances and staying in one place longer. They are also waiting to decide whether to travel, he said.

"People aren't planning in advance as much as we're used to," he said. "They are making reservations at the last minute or are just walking up."

Baumgart, the state promotions official, is feeling good about the remaining months in 2009.

"Reservations are strong and everybody is feeling optimistic going into fall quarter," she said.

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