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Survey: Montana’s Tourism Industry Sees Mixed Impacts From Pandemic

A family walks past restaurants and bars in Dillon, Montana, May 12, 2020.
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
A family walks past restaurants and bars in Dillon, Mont., May 12, 2020.

A research group at the University of Montana this week released its latest survey results looking at the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on travel related businesses in Montana. Industry members, which helped pull in nearly $3.8 billion in visitor spending last year, are feeling both the highs and lows of the pandemic's economic impacts.

Norma Nickerson is the director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, which has so far sent out four surveys to tourism-related business owners across Montana since mid-March.

“The business people are very concerned. They’re concerned about the economy and its recovery. But this summer was such a strange summer for Montana and the tourism industry because it was kind of like you have the haves and the have nots,” Nickerson said.

She said two pieces of information play a big role in understanding the survey responses from business owners.

"You have to first know where they’re located and second the type of business that they have before you can actually understand the answers that they’re providing us.”

Nickerson said businesses near Yellowstone and Glacier national parks generally did really well over the summer. People across the U.S., tired of being cooped up at home, wanted some escapism and saw a road trip to a national park as a fairly safe option.

She said a lot of outfitters and guides reported doing better than they had expected, and retailers in West Yellowstone said sales also surpassed their expectations, possibly because people could carry more purchases home in a car than on a plane.

"And maybe they had pent up demand to go shopping,” Nickerson added.

But she said the flow of out of state travelers to national parks didn’t provide the same kind of economic boost to businesses in central and eastern Montana, and restaurants across the state were hit pretty hard, especially if they weren’t set up for take out.

“The restaurant association of Montana was saying that if COVID doesn’t go down this winter, that they’re expecting 30 to 60 percent of the restaurants will probably shut down in Montana," Nickerson said. "Nationally, that’s kind of what they’re hearing, too. That’s huge.”

Nickerson said the state’s busiest airport, the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, expects to bump up to 80 percent capacity by December. Airlines have been adding flights to Bozeman because leisure travelers are driving the market rather than work travelers right now.

Nickerson said ski resorts are trying to figure out how to keep visitors physically distanced this winter and come up with plans if staff get COVID-19 or need to quarantine.

Staffing during the pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges for businesses across the state.