Sunday, August 09, 2009

Where have all the tourists gone?

Montana's travel numbers were "pretty soft" through June, said Betsy Baumgart, travel director for the Montana Office of Tourism, "but the real heart of our tourism season is July through September. And our tourism partners, including concessionaires in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, have told us their reservations have picked up steadily since June, though consumers seem to be spending less in restaurants and retail stores."

In fact, Yellowstone Park last week reported a record number of visitors in July, 900,500. In July 2008, 808,110 people visited the park.

Glacier Park's July numbers are not fully compiled yet but also appeared strong, a spokesman said. Glacier had a 14 percent increase in visitors in June compared with the previous year, from 287,059 in 2008 to 327,572 this year.

"With the uncertain economy, many people have been waiting until the last minute to decide to travel, and then staying closer to home and seeking good value," Baumgart said, adding that can benefit Montana's reasonably priced travel.

A Butte family enjoying a four-day stay at the Great Falls KOA might be typical of those staying closer to home to economize.

Dan Carroll, his fiancée, Kristi Jozovich, and her three children came to Great Falls to shop for school clothes, attend a couple of baseball games, bike on the River's Edge Trail, swim at the Electric City Water Park and tour the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center.

Carroll and Jozovich said they considered other options such as Salt Lake City or Spokane and the nearby Silverwood Theme Park for their big summer vacation but figured Great Falls had "just as much to do and is more affordable."

The Great Falls KOA is the nicest they've found, Jozovich said, with a water spray park and a deluxe cabin with a kitchenette so they can reduce spending on meals out. It's a better deal than getting two motel rooms, she said.

Still, plenty of RV drivers from the Midwest and Canada were lined up waiting to pull into the KOA a few evenings ago.

Manager Al Belknap estimated camper nights have been up 10 or 15 percent so far this summer "and August has always been our busiest month."

The Great Falls campground has been packed on weekends and at least 70 percent full week nights, he said.
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