Tourist numbers down for unexplained reasons
A moist winter, relatively low gas prices and a weak national economy seemed the perfect recipe for increased domestic and roadway summer travel. But so far, visitation to Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park hasn't been so hot.
"I anticipated a stronger tourist season," said Shelly McKamey, interim director of the Museum of the Rockies. "Gas prices had stabilized. I thought people would travel domestically and go to locations that are perceived to be safe."
But so far museum visitation has been down by about 7 percent in May and 12 percent in June over the same months last year.
The drop appears to include both tourists and locals, "which surprises me because we have such strong programs for kids this summer," McKamey said. "We have noticed the first part of July things picking up a little bit. But we don't have the numbers."
Visitation seems to have jumped up in early July in Yellowstone National Park as well, said Cheryl Matthews, spokeswoman for the park. But by the numbers, Yellowstone is down by about 4 percent for the year through June.
"Any number of factors can influence that," Matthews said. "It's hard to say specifically this one factor."
Weather, gas prices and wildfires can all impact people's travel plans, she said. The park was getting some snow around June 21st and the Beartooth Highway was closed briefly due to weather which may have caused the numbers to drop.
A wildfire burning near West Yellowstone last week did not impact facilities or roads and Matthews said she didn't see why a fire that was quickly contained would scare off tourists.
Statewide, tourist travel seems stronger than in the local area. Betsy Baumgart, administrator for Travel Montana, said the organization is receiving about 7,000 user visits per day on its Web site.
"Inquiries are up," she said. "That's a good indication there is interest in summer vacation."
Baumgart said the state's two national parks are always a good measure of how many tourists are visiting Montana. And while Yellowstone's numbers are down, Glacier National Park has seen a substantial rise in visitation so far this summer. Glacier has seen more than 100,000 more people this year than last and visitation is up by 34 percent through June.
"For the Fourth of July, Glacier had a very strong weekend. Reservations are strong. If the trend continues they feel they are going to have a banner summer," she said. "They are feeling the numbers are a little soft in Yellowstone. We don't really have a feel for what's going on."
Beyond visitation statistics, Baumgart said Yellowstone lodging establishments have also reported low numbers.
Hotels in Bozeman aren't booked up as far in advance as normal. Cyndy Andrus of the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce said local hotels are experiencing an overall shift from tourists planning vacations far in advance to walking in the door looking for a room at the last minute.
"People seem to be planning vacations with a much shorter time out. In years past they would plan a year ahead of time or months ahead of time. These days it's two weeks," Andrus said. "There are so many walk-ins taking place at the properties in town. In some cases there are record numbers of people walking in."
Andrus attributed the change to an uncertain economy pushing people to make vacation decisions at the last minute and the Internet providing easy access to vacation information.
"For (Bozeman), in June, things were really slow. They have
just started to pick up," she said, remaining optimistic. "People
are looking to have a good summer this year."
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