UM Report: Montana Visitor Spending Down in 2020, Looking Better for 2021

Flathead Lake. Photo by Jim Elser, director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station.

MISSOULA – As tourism goes, 2020 will be a memorable year for only one thing –COVID-19’s detrimental impact on economies that depend on travel and tourism across the U.S. and world.

Montana was no exception as its out-of-state visitation was down about 12% over the previous year, said researchers at the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR). The state still fared much better than states like California, which saw a 55% reduction in travel-related spending according to the industry webpage of Visit California, where tourism is more heavily based on urban destinations, air traffic and international travelers.

“At the start of the pandemic, we expected to see substantial declines in spending from out-of-state travelers, but quickly realized a strong demand for people to drive and find wide open spaces, outdoor recreation opportunities and generally escape dense urban areas or destinations,” said ITRR Director Jeremy Sage. “We have a lot of that in Montana, and the secret is definitely out.”

However, not only did the 2020 total volume of visitors decrease to the lowest numbers in five years, but spending patterns of those arriving changed as well, resulting in a 16% overall reduction.

According to Sage, the distortions created from the pandemic were due to the decrease in restaurant capacities, closures of indoor spaces and activities in general. “This definitely had an effect on what and where people spent their travel dollars,” he said.

Despite the challenges, 11.1 million out-of-state visitors still contributed roughly $3.15 billion in travel-related spending to Montana’s economy during 2020. This spending directly supported nearly $2.6 billion in economic activity and nearly 31,000 state jobs, as well as indirectly supporting an additional $1.8 billion in economic activity and more than 12,400 additional jobs.

Looking back, 2020 started off on a strong footing, with a 9% increase in visitation in the first quarter of 2020 compared to 2019 and a 16% increase in spending by those visitors.

However, ITRR estimates reflect a 32% decrease in visitation and 50% decrease in traveler spending during the second quarter. While the state definitely saw a return of out-of-state visitors during the third quarter following the lifting of quarantines and stay-at-home orders, visitation and spending were still down slightly from the previous year – 4% and 5%, respectively. The last quarter of the year showed 14% fewer travelers and 28% less spending than during the same time period in 2019.

Even with the noted dips in overall visitation and spending, outdoor spaces such as state parks, national parks and campgrounds around the state were busier than ever during the second half of 2020 as pandemic-related travel restrictions and closures lifted.

Early indicators thus far in the spring 2021 point to more of the same for Montana’s busy travel season this year. It seems likely that the decreases seen in 2020 will be regained in 2021.

ITRR continues to collect data and release reports related to travel and tourism in the state throughout the year. The full report is available online, and all ITRR reports are available on the ITRR website.


Contact Jeremy Sage, ITRR economist and interim director, 406-243-5552,; Kara Grau, ITRR assistant director of economic analysis, 406-243-5107,