Statewide visitor spending rebounds

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A new report indicates that despite a historic fire season last summer, non-resident spending in Montana is rebounding from a four-year low in 2016.

According to the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, last year 12.5 million out-of-state visitors spent an estimated $3.36 billion in the state, up 8 percent from 2016 when adjusted for inflation.

Travel groups spent an average of $130 per day, for a total of $1.7 billion during the peak summer months alone.

The biggest fraction of the overall total was spent on fuel, which accounted for 23 percent of the expenditures. Twenty percent was spent at restaurants and bars, while an additional 13 percent was spent on hotels and motels and 11 percent on outfitters and recreational guides. All other categories each accounted for less than 10 percent of expenditures.

However, despite the uptick in tourist dollars, the institute’s research suggests that Montana lost out on a potential $240.5 million in out-of-state spending due to last year’s severe fire season. About 1.2 million acres burned statewide last year.

“Visitor spending during 2017 was higher than 2016, but it could have been even more impactful if the smoke conditions had not led people to change, shorten or cancel their plans,” said Jeremy Sage, the institute’s economist and associate director.

Just over half of 2017’s visitor dollars were spent between July and September. Tourists spent 27 percent of their dollars between April and June, 14 percent between October and December and 12 percent between January and March.

According to Kara Grau, the institute’s assistant director of economic analysis, travelers directly supported nearly $2.8 billion in economic activity for Montana and almost 39,000 state jobs, as well as indirectly supporting an additional $1.9 billion in economic activity and more than 14,500 jobs.

The biggest portion of non-resident visitors, at 36 percent, reported being in Montana for a vacation. An additional 29 percent said they were just passing through and 18 percent said they were visiting friends or relatives. Nearly all the expenditure categories were significantly higher for those here on vacation than for any other reason.

All but 12 percent of visitors reported being from other states in the U.S. Overseas visitors reported spending nearly $50 per day more than their Canadian or American counterparts when they visited Montana.

Visitors arriving through Glacier Park International Airport also went on to report the second-highest average daily spending of any airport in the state, behind only Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. Visitors who came through Glacier Park International Airport accounted for about $140 million in spending inside the state during their stay.

All information and reports published by the institute are online at

Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or

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