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Though numbers are down just a hair from last year, a new study shows tourists spend more in Gallatin County than any other county in Montana.

The University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research found that visitors spent about $659 million in Gallatin County on things like groceries, hotels, restaurants and recreation in 2017. People spent the most on restaurants and bars, with outfitters and guides coming in second.

This is closely linked to hotel spending, Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Daryl Schliem said. It’s pretty simple: When people stay at hotels on vacation, they tend to eat out.

He also attributed the overall increase in tourism spending to an aggressive marketing campaign launched six years ago by a number of tourism entities in Gallatin and part of Park County, including the Bozeman Chamber, Yellowstone Club, the Big Sky Chamber, the airport and Moonlight Basin.

“We’re happy to see the numbers doing what we expected to see,” Schliem said.

He also pointed out that the airport has had a major impact on tourism in the area, with 600,361 people flying out of Bozeman Yellowstone International last year. A lot of bus tours and other tourists also go through Yellowstone National Park and Bozeman on their way to Glacier National Park.

Gallatin County is well-positioned for economic growth, encompassing one of the most profitable swaths of land in the southern half of the state.

Big Sky’s presence is one obvious tourist destination, and West Yellowstone is the park’s most-used entrance, according to ITRR director Norma Nickerson, meaning more people are buying gas, groceries and other commodities there than at other entrances.

While Gallatin County currently leads the state in tourist spending, it’s usually neck and neck with Flathead County, and ITRR reported more spending regionally in Glacier Country, at nearly $1.08 billion, than Yellowstone Country, which saw about $917.3 million in tourist spending.

This is partly because so much of Yellowstone is concentrated in Wyoming, Nickerson said, so visitors tend to spend a lot of time across the state border as well. Though Glacier and Waterton National Park in Canada are connected, Glacier’s much bigger, and it’s harder to cross over international borders than state lines.

In this way, economic activity in Gallatin County can have a ripple effect to other parts of the state, Nickerson said. Someone might buy gas in Bozeman on their way to Glacier, for example, or they might support a soap business in Helena by purchasing it from a gift shop in Big Sky.

And Montana as a whole didn’t fare so bad, either, seeing a 2.6 percent increase from last year’s estimate. This comes out to about $3.24 billion, according to ITRR. And it’s not just concentrated in Glacier and Yellowstone. Central and Southeast Montana also saw increases in tourist spending.

Spending has generally gone up across the state over the past several years, and economists expect it to keep going up. While sometimes uncontrollable elements like the weather or forest fires can affect tourism numbers, the industry overall is pretty stable, Nickerson said.

“Generally, it’s not a boom and bust cycle like some industries,” she said.

Tourism largely depends on the economy as a whole, which people are pretty confident in right now, she said. If the economy is doing well, people usually feel a little better about traveling. Gas prices have also been relatively low and unemployment is going down, which helps, ITRR economist and associate director Jeremy Sage said.

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

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