MISSOULA – A recent University of Montana survey found state residents still generally support tourism. However, there are growing worries about overcrowding, quality of life and newcomers flooding the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 1992, UM’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research has conducted annual surveys of Montana residents on their attitudes toward tourism within the state. This study is conducted from October to December to track perceptions of the tourism industry in Montana.
In addition to a standard set of questions about their attitudes toward tourism in 2021, residents were asked about the economic benefits of tourism, travelers and travel behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A large majority of Montanans (71%) still agree that the overall benefits of tourism outweigh the negative impacts. Similarly, more than eight out of 10 residents agree that tourism promotion by the state benefits their communities economically.
That question, however, saw a great deal of variation in its level of agreement when different travel regions of the state were compared. For example, the areas with the highest level of agreement are closest to Yellowstone National Park, with the lowest level of agreement being in the Missouri River travel region in northeast Montana.
When it comes to a sense of overcrowding due to visitors in 2021, residents expressed the highest level of agreement since the start of the annual survey nearly 30 years ago, with 56% of residents agreeing that the state is becoming overcrowded because of more tourists. This is the first time more residents have agreed than disagreed with this statement. When compared to pre-pandemic levels, this represents a 75% increase since 2019. The residents who live closest to Montana’s two national parks had the highest levels of agreement regarding crowding.
When it comes to quality of life for Montana residents, more respondents than ever expressed concern, with just under 40% agreeing that quality of life would improve if tourism increased. When looking at trend data for this statement, sentiment began to shift toward disagreement before COVID-19 began – only to be exacerbated by pandemic conditions.
For the second year in a row, residents were asked questions related to COVID-19 and travel. Less than half of Montana residents stated they are concerned about visitors in their community, and just under half agreed they were more likely to travel within Montana than out of state due to the pandemic.
Compared to 2020 data, residents in 2021 were less concerned about visitors in their community and were more likely to leave Montana for travel – showing some easing of pandemic worries.
Finally, residents had the chance to share comments with surveyors, and many noted that the crowding they perceive is not necessarily from tourism and visitors, but from those who chose to move to Montana during COVID-19. These residents also expressed the sentiment that tourism within the state is good economically, but the influx of new residents is having an impact on housing costs and affordability for locals.
Contact: Jeremy Sage, economist and interim director, UM Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, 406-243-5552, firstname.lastname@example.org; Carter Bermingham, ITRR social scientist and research associate, 406-243-2872, email@example.com.