New indications of just how well Montana’s tourism economy is faring this year suggest renewed strength in one of the state’s leading industries.
“Montana hotel occupancy outperformed the national average in June and July, and Montana topped all 50 states with 84 percent hotel room occupancy in July,” said Mary Paoli, spokeswoman for Voices of Montana Tourism, in a statement this week.
She also noted that demand for Montana hotel rooms increased average daily room rates nearly 8 percent in June and more than 4 percent in July. Those figures come from Smith Travel Research, a national company.
“We benefited from steady gas prices, a national uptick in travel and warm weather early in the season,” said Stuart Doggett, executive director of the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association. “Paired with Montana’s strong tourism marketing, it seems like everything came together to create a successful summer.”
Last year, 10.5 million out-of-state travelers spent $2.8 billion in Montana. Paoli said year-to-date figures indicate those numbers would be higher in 2012 if current trends continue.
National Park Service figures for the year show that at the end of July all but two small units, both in southwestern Montana, showed substantial increases over last year.
Visitor numbers at Little Bighorn Battlefield were up 24.4 percent. Glacier Park, with an earlier opening of Going to the Sun Highway, was up 21.2 percent. Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area was up 17.1 percent and Yellowstone Park was up 4.8 percent. On the other hand, Grant-Kohrs Ranch was down 26.2 percent and Big Hole Battlefield was down 6.4 percent.
Airports handled increasing traffic in most locations during the first seven months of the year. In Billings, numbers were up 6.3 percent. Bozeman saw a 7.7 percent increase, Kalispell was up 6.4 percent, and Missoula saw a .4 percent increase.
The Bakken oil fields in Eastern Montana continued to pump traffic to airports in that part of the state. Passenger traffic at Sidney was up 296 percent. It was up 44.5 percent at Glasgow, 21.4 percent at Glendive and 141 percent at Wolf Point.
It was down 13.3 percent at Butte, 10.2 percent at Lewistown, 56.8 percent at Miles City and 4.4 percent at Helena.
Final figures for the summer season are still being calculated. But preliminary results from the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana show a 6 percent increase in the number of travelers visiting the state in the first two quarters of the year.
Those preliminary results indicated a decline in numbers for the Southeast Montana Tourism Region, which includes Billings and the rest of Eastern Montana, from 780,511 in 2011 to 742,515 in 2012.
But estimates for Yellowstone County were substantially better. The 2012 figure of 623,845 beat the 2011 figure, 584,506.
According to the survey, visitors to the Southeast Montana Tourism Region this year spent about $653.8 million by the end of June — $220 million on gas, $160 million on retail purchases, $120 million on restaurants and bars and $80 million on lodging.
Of the total spent in the tourism region, about $500 million was dropped in Yellowstone County. Retail purchases in Yellowstone County ranked at the top of visitor expenditures at $160 million, while gas purchases at $113 million were a distant second. The numbers probably reflect Billings’ position as a retail hub for people in neighboring states.
“We’re waiting for August results and we still have four months left in 2012, but we’re optimistic that Montana will see a third consecutive year of tourism growth by the end of December,” Doggett said. “This is meaningful because out-of-state travelers give a big boost to our economy, and the dollars that travelers spend here allow Montana businesses to retain and create more jobs.”