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Report: Montana cashes in on tourism, but Yellowstone County lags in visitor spending

Posted at 5:36 PM, Oct 09, 2018
and last updated 2019-07-17 14:51:28-04

BILLINGS- The numbers are out, and Montana received billions of dollars in tourism dollars this year.

In all, non-resident travelers spent $3.24 billion in Montana, according to an annual study produced by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

All of this money comes from visitors eating in Montana’s restaurants, sleeping in hotels and visiting Montana’s landmarks like Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park.

But how much money did Yellowstone County get? For Montana’s most populated county, it’s not as much as other cities in the state.

The tourism report found Gallatin County saw the most money with $660 million in non-resident spending.

Yellowstone County ranks fourth after Missoula and Flathead counties with $225 million in non-resident spending.

The analysis takes into account Montana’s six travel regions and 14 counties with the highest nonresident spending. Then researchers calculate spending by looking over date from previous years in 2017 and 2016.

While there is a drive for tourists to visit national parks, Alex Tyson with Visit Billings explains why Yellowstone County isn’t bringing in more money and said the long-term strategy is key to keeping visitors in the eastern part of the state.

“We should have the most amenities,” said Tyson. “We should be the community that is highly competitive with these other counties across our region for people to choose to make part of their itinerary.”

According to the report, Montana’s Yellowstone Country, the area deemed closest to Yellowstone National Park inlduding Bozeman and even Carbon County, saw spending by nonresidents totaling over $917 million, a 29 percent of the state’s total.

For Southeast Montana Country, the tourism area that includes Billings,  nonresidents spent $364 million, only 11 percent of the state’s total tourism dollars.

Of course, this kind of spending supports local jobs and labor income, all of it coming from outside spending.

For Montana’s largest city, not all of that money is going into local coffers. Turns out, tourists are opting to travel through the Bozeman area on their way to Yellowstone National Park instead of stopping in Billings. Or in some cases, visitors are bypassing Eastern Montana attractions and heading to the western part of the state.

It’s that kind of mentality that Tyson said the Billings Chamber of Commerce is trying to actively change all the time.

“That’s where these numbers are important. We’re falling slightly behind our competitive set because maybe we aren’t being as progressive as these other communities,” said Tyson. “Those are the questions we definitely need to be looking at.”

Billings leaders are doing more than looking though, as the community watches the possibility of the proposed One Big Sky Center project take shape.

Most recently, the developer unveiled research findings before the Billings City Council saying Billings has proven itself as an established destination and profitable area. The president of Wisconsin-based Hammes Company, Bob Dunn, recently  led a discussion of a convention center as a way to attract business, development, and visitors to Billings.

According to Tyson, that’s an example of how Billings is trying to progressively market itself to outsiders.

“From a Montana brand point of view, I want to fish, I want to go to Yellowstone, I want to go to Glacier, I want to hit Pompey’s Pillar and the Lewis and Clark Trail and all of these are great cultural and historic and natural wonders,” said Tyson. “How do we make sure that we go, ‘hey, Billings is a great place to make part of your itinerary, don’t forget about us.’ That’s where our job is.”

The UM tourism report is published every year. This year, researchers saw an increase of 2.6 percent from previous year’s outside spending.