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As gas prices rise, Montana tourism industry readies for summer season

Cars line up at the west entrance into Glacier National Park on June 12, 2021.
Aaron Bolton
Montana Public Radio
Cars line up at the west entrance into Glacier National Park on June 12, 2021.

Gas prices are now about $1.50 per gallon higher than they were last year at this time.

According to AAA, the average price of gas across the country is more than $4.

That worries some Montana businesses that rely on tourists who drive. Last year nearly 90% of visitors came to the state by car.

It’s still a few weeks to peak tourist season in Montana, but a few cars with out-of-state license plates are fueling up at this gas station just outside of Missoula.

Colleen Billman says high gas prices didn’t affect her decision to drive her Dodge pickup over from eastern Washington state to visit friends. She says she tries to stay away from gas stations near tourist attractions, but sometimes can’t help it.

“I have a feeling that’s what we got yesterday, when we had the national debt, when we fueled the tank on this beast,” she says.

Billman says she spent $250 to fill up.

“And it’s the most I’ve ever spent on fueling the tank.”

Nearby, at Blackfoot River Outfitters, owner John Herzer is feeling the high prices, too.

“I have to fill my truck every two to three days, and it’s 70 bucks a pop, or whatever it is,” he says.

Herzer guides clients on fly fishing trips, which means hauling boats to area rivers, feeding his clients lunch, and then paying a shuttle service to drive them back to where they started.

“It starts to hurt. And you’re buying food everyday, I mean all those things just add up to where your bottom line isn’t quite what it once was.”

Herzer says he’s had to raise prices 5% from last year, to $625 to take two people down the river. At some point, he expects higher prices could impact people’s willingness to book fishing trips.

“The jury is still out, but for this year, I still feel like we’re solid. But going into 2023, we’re going to have to revisit all that stuff,” Herzer says.

Economist Jeremy Sage tracks tourist spending at the University of Montana. He says high gas prices are only one factor in whether people cancel vacations, or spend less when they travel. They can almost ignore them if they’re feeling economically stable in general.

“They’re not coming to Montana to spend money on gas. They’re coming to Montana to have their Glacier experience, to have their Yellowstone experience, to have that fishing experience.”

With many Americans sitting on money they didn’t spend during the pandemic, Sage expects tourists to either scale their trips back, or inflate their vacation budget and spend more.

“I think gas prices will dampen it a little bit, but I don’t think it’s going to create some devastating impact of reduction in travel and expenditures in Montana,” Sage says.

A U.S. Travel Association report says nearly nine in 10 Americans planto travel this summer, a majority of those by car. About 12 million people visit Montana every year.

Back at the gas station, Colleen Billman says she and her husband cut back on spending before this trip. She says the last time they came to Montana was about a year ago and that they’re picky about vacations they take.

“We value our time off, and we’ll make that really special.”

People whose jobs depend on tourist spending are hoping Montana’s allure will remain strong enough to keep visitors coming, in spite of higher gas prices forecast for this summer. The more than $3 billion dollars they spend every year keeps a lot of businesses’ boats afloat here.

Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
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