MISSOULA — After the question of safety and recovery, the big puzzle on the mind of Montana's businesses is what happens to our critical tourism industry with flooding, and skyrocketing gas prices.
It's a question no one was expecting to face in what should have been a "normal" tourism season.
The spring report from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana had been filled with good news in May. The Treasure State hadn't thrived, but survived, two years of COVID.
"Our tourism visitation spending did not decrease nearly as much as a lot of areas, so we were at an advantage in that regard," researcher Kara Grau of the University of Montana's Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research explained to me this week.
Grau says some of that $5-billion in business last year was driven by a huge interest in travelers to enjoy Montana's wide-open spaces. Some by higher prices.
"Because we did have quite a bit of demand, so the price of accommodations was higher. Rental car availability was an issue, so that was expensive. So things were costing a bit more."
Still, a 12% increase from 2020 was good news, with predictions for a more even season in '22.
"I don't think any of us expected things to continue on that same steep upward trajectory," Grau said. "I don't think that's something that we would reasonably expect to see multiple years in a row, so we knew that we wouldn't see such high spending and such overcrowding of some areas."
However, trouble signs showed up in May, with visits to Yellowstone and Glacier down, and tourism businesses blaming the slow start on gas and near-winter weather. But it all fell apart this week with the floods closing Yellowstone and its' gateway communities. Grau says everyone's first thought is safety and concern. Secondly, puzzled over what happens now. Statewide.
"You know, in an average year, about half of our visitors say they stop at Yellowstone. So, if those folks are having to cancel their trips that's a very big impact to the region."
Of course, to the state as a whole, and absolutely to those communities.
And will $5-plus fuel kill what tourism is left? Research and past experience suggests "no", with in-state tourism maybe making up the difference. But the Institute is surveying residents to find out.
"People are motivated to push through those mental barriers," Grau said. "Whereas you may say I'm not going to drive as much around town because I don't want to be spending that much on gas.
But if you've been planning a vacation, you may just decide, alright, I'm just going to eat that extra cost and go enjoy myself."