Tourist Tourism Yellowstone National Park File

A tourist takes advantage of the sun to photograph the Ledge Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin in this May 2018 photo.

For the fourth year in a row, tourists spent more in Gallatin County than anywhere else in the state, according to a new study from the University of Montana.

In a report released this week, UM’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research found that visitors spent $814,070,000 in Gallatin County in 2018, about $155 million more than they spent the year before.

In most counties, tourists spent the most on gas, said ITRR director Norma Nickerson. In Gallatin County, that wasn’t the case. Travelers spent the most on restaurant and bars and outfitters and guides.

Restaurant numbers are tied to hotel stays, Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Daryl Schliem told the Chronicle for a story about similar 2017 numbers last October.

“Which means money generated in Gallatin County is staying there,” Nickerson said. “Which is then a better economic impact for Gallatin County.”

Yellowstone Country, encompassing the south-central portion of the state, saw less tourist spending than Glacier Country, in northwestern Montana. Still, Gallatin County saw about $200 million more in spending than the second highest county, Flathead.

The area contains all the right components for success, Nickerson said.

Big Sky Resort is bigger than Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, regularly setting visitation records, she said. Yellowstone National Park is often a bucket-list destination for people, and having the busiest entrance, West Yellowstone, in Gallatin County also gives it a boost.

It’s also easier to access Gallatin County than Flathead County, she said. Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport has added many flights, and Interstate 90 crosses the Gallatin Valley.

Tourist spending wasn’t just up in Gallatin Valley; it increased 10.4% in the state as a whole, according to the study.

“We see this as a big plus for Montana since our numbers indicate that visitation was relatively flat in 2018, but spending was up,” Nickerson said in a press release.

Though visitors don’t tell those conducting surveys for the study why they’re spending more, it could be a result of the overall economy doing well, Nickerson said. People are also spending more on more expensive things like guided trips than souvenirs, which cost less, she said.

The upward trend in tourist spending in Gallatin County and Montana is expected to continue, Nickerson said. Big Sky just wrapped up a busy ski season, and plenty of people are visiting Yellowstone right now. And gas prices would have to be higher than $4 per gallon before it would really start to slow people down, she said.

“Unless the economy takes a big dip,” she said. “It’s just on that upward trend.”

Abby Lynes can be reached at alynes@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2651. Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Lynes.

Abby Lynes covers business and the economy for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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