Experts project summer travel in Montana to return to 'normal'
Visitors arriving at the Missoula airport this summer will hear the drone of construction outside. Missoula, along with the state’s three other busiest airports in Bozeman, Kalispell and Billings, is working to expand capacity to meet visitor demand, which is up 55% over the last decade.
Missoula airport’s Deputy Director Tim Damrow said the facility’s expansion has been a long time coming.
“I think we’re always losing the catchup game, and unfortunately, COVID just made that go a lot quicker,” Damrow said.
Damrow expects passenger traffic this summer to potentially exceed pre-pandemic levels.
Experts say a return to steady growth will likely be the story of this year’s summer travel season in the state. Melissa Weddell leads the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.
“The pandemic really caused a boom for any location, especially Montana, that had a lot of outdoor recreation and things to do,” Weddell said.
Weddell said some of that pressure will likely dissipate due in part to pent-up demand for international travel and the potential for more trouble with air travel due to pilot and aircraft shortages.
Damrow said he has his eye on the potential for disruptions and expects a relatively smooth summer season. But, he says the pandemic may have produced some trends the airport didn’t anticipate — like a surge in demand for parking.
“Typically, at the airport, we’d only see our parking lot overflow at Christmas — maybe spring break,” Damrow said, gesturing out a window. “Now you can see, we’re basically full on parking.”
Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport — the state’s busiest — caught the parking trend early. CEO Brian Sprenger says the airport added 50% more lot space last year, matching a 50% increase in passenger traffic since 2019.
Motorists are also expected to be undeterred by inflation. AAA spokesperson Julian Paredes says the organization projects road trips will be up 6% this weekend. The average price for a gallon of gas in Montana was $3.61 on Friday — just more than the national average.
“The good news is that that’s about a dollar less than last year,” Paredes said. “So, we saw really record highs last year. Right now, it’s quite a bit more stable.”
A recent study from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research found Montanans’ attitudes toward tourism have soured in recent years. 66% of respondents in 2022 agreed that tourism is an overall benefit to the state — the lowest rate in two decades.