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Travelers looking for beautiful, wide open spaces can find them in Eastern Montana — if they know where to look. The Montana Department of Commerce has teamed up with partners in Yellowstone and 22 counties farther east to promote the largely untapped tourism opportunities of Montana's plains.

  • Imagine motorcyclists touring the MonDak Motorcycle Loop from Baker through Alzada.
  • City dwellers could stargaze the dark Big Sky with the Eastern Montana Astrotourism Product Development Project.
  • Visitors can immerse themselves in western history with the Bear Paw Battlefield Campaign in Blaine County.
  • Trails are popular with people of all ages, an interest that the Fergus County Wayfinding System will tap for Lewistown and nearby recreational trails.

A total of $360,000 in grants for the tourism projects listed above was awarded by the state's Eastern Montana Tourism Partner Initiative several weeks ago. Grants also were awarded for the new sloth exhibit at ZooMontana, an event stage in Glasgow, a portable stage in Scobey and kiosks in the Terry area. The Commerce Department said more grants will be made later this year as part of a $1.3 million two-year initiative to boost tourism in Yellowstone and Eastern Montana counties.

The initiative was launched to counter a trend in lower lodging tax collections in this region. Collections went down in some Eastern Montana counties even as the statewide total increased.

In 2018, out-of-state travelers spent $3.58 billion in Montana with Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Parks by far the biggest attractions. Glacier Country tourism area drew 34% of that spending and Yellowstone Country drew 30%, according to the University of Montana's Institute for Tourism & Recreation Research. Gallatin County alone accounted for $814 million, followed by Flathead County at $614 million. The institute estimates 2018 visitor spending in Yellowstone County was $202 million.

The tourism regions with the smallest visitor spending are all east of the Continental Divide: Missouri River Country $102 million; Central Montana $317 million and Southeast Montana $388 million, which includes Yellowstone County.

Airline travel has grown faster at the Bozeman/Belgrade airport than anywhere else in Montana. Missoula's airline passenger total exceeded Billings this summer and Kalispell has seen its airport get much busier as Glacier Park visitation has soared. If Billings airline traffic is going to grow significantly, leisure travel in our region must grow.

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Tourism businesses can be very compatible with agriculture businesses. Eastern Montana and Billings must be open to the possibilities for hosting more tourists. Yet not all new ideas have been welcome. Case in point: American Prairie Reserve has purchased land for grazing bison and has opened portions to the public, including camping and limited hunting. Yet some cattlemen and other locals have opposed the APR investment.

People in this region will have to decide for themselves what they want. Tourism brings change, but it can be managed. Change is happening. 

The number of jobs in the oil patch rises and falls with the market. Agriculture commodity prices can't be controlled from Montana. Tourism and outdoor recreation offer Montana entrepreneurs — family farms and small businesses — new options to make their own futures.

During the month of July, Yellowstone Park logged 936,062 visitors, many of them experienced traffic jams and full parking lots throughout their trips. Likewise, the 883,973 July visitors in Glacier Park found crowds but not enough parking along Going to the Sun Road.

Eastern Montana needs to market its different, quieter uncrowded experiences with nature. The amazing rock formations in Makoshika and Medicine Rocks state parks are a photographer's delight at sunrise and sunset. The night skies are so dark over the Montana plains that stargazers love that Big Sky. 

Among the estimated 12 million out-of-state visitors to Montana last year, less than 1% ventured into Billings and points east. Let's get together, and promote eastern Montana destinations.

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