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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Coronavirus Could Have Mixed Impacts On Montana Tourism

A ranger hands a visitor park information at one of Glacier National Park's entrances.
Glacier National Park (PD)
A ranger hands a visitor park information at one of Glacier National Park's entrances.

International travel to the U.S. is expected to decline due to flight restrictions and fears over the novel coronavirus. That downturn will take a big bite out of the U.S. travel and tourism economy. But, the virus could be boon to places like western Montana as Americans cancel their international trips in favor of something a little closer to home.

As skiers hit the rails and slopes on Whitefish Mountain in the Flathead Valley, Gail Goodwin of Snow Bear Chalet, steps out the front door of one of her luxury 35-foot tall tree houses.

Goodwin says she caters to wealthier customers who are also regular international travelers, and as the busy summer season approaches, she’s been getting more calls from people canceling those trips due to travel restrictions and fears over the coronavirus.

"As the one lady I talked to from New York just a few days ago said to me, if there’s going to be a problem, I want to be close to my home. I want to be in the United States where I know the level of care, the quality level of care that’s available to us. She canceled a two-week trip to Bali to stay here."

A luxury chalet at Whitefish Mountain.
Credit Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio
Montana Public Radio
A luxury chalet at Whitefish Mountain.

Goodwin’s customers looking at Montana as an alternative plan are part of what is expected to be a downturn in the roughly 100 million international trips Americans take each year.

On a conference call with U.S. Travel Association members Wednesday, President of Tourism Economics Adam Sacks said a similar downturn during the 2003 SARS outbreak actually boosted domestic travel, and he says that could happen again.

"If that falls 5 percent as it did in 2003 — and it could certainly fall by more than that — you’re looking at 5 million trips that are up for grabs.”

And with the recent spread of COVID-19 in large cities like Seattle, wide-open spaces like Montana might sound appealing to those looking to get out. The idea even came up on Howard Stern’s show on SiriusXM this week.

Stern: We should disappear for a year ... I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll go to Montana and I’ll broadcast from there.

Stern isn’t alone in thinking of Montana, particularly the northwest corner of the state — which accounts for about a third of the $3.6 billion non-resident visitors spend in the state each year.

Missoula-based Glacier Country Tourism says they’ve heard from some businesses that trip bookings in the area are going up. CEO Racene Friede says, "Right now, we just don’t have a firm grip on what exactly is happening."

Friede says a majority of visitors to northwest Montana are Americans who drive to the region from places like Washington State and California, both states with coronavirus cases. She says barring any travel advisories or restrictions from U.S. health officials, Montana may increasingly be on people’s minds trying to avoid congested cities and airports. But there could be some negative impact here.

While the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says U.S. airports remain safe, Friede says fear of the virus could lead to a downturn in the 10 to 12 percent of visitors who fly into Kalispell or Missoula.

"There could be potential downward trends. There could be cancelations."

In order to find out, Friede’s staff are sending out surveys to tourism related businesses in and around Glacier National Park. Others around the state are also monitoring the situation closely.

In West Yellowstone, some businesses that focus on increasing travel from lucrative Asian markets like China are reporting a downturn in early season bookings due to flight restrictions.

West Yellowstone Chamber CEO Mary Sue Costello says, “April and May are going to be affected by that, because in many cases those airlines have a quarantine on them through May.”

The U.S. Travel Association predicts international travel to the U.S. will decline nearly 4.5 percent through July as a result of the coronavirus, leading to a $10 billion hit to the U.S. economy.

However, Jeremy Sage with the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana explains that non-Canadian international visitors to Montana only account for about 2.5 percent of the 12.6 million visitors the state receives each year.

"It will be an impact as far as that goes, but the level of impact to a state like Montana is much less, in my opinion, than somewhere like a New York or these big international destinations. Just given our small piece of the international market, the impact should be muted."

Sage also adds that as long as the coronavirus doesn’t severely impact individual consumer confidence, a spike in domestic travel could certainly pick up some of that slack.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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