Big sky country and big adventures drew in over 12 million tourists to Montana last year. As the state moves to reopen amid low COVID-19 case numbers, some Montana communities have to weigh the economic importance of tourism with local safety.
YPR New’s Jess Sheldahl spoke with Johnathan Hettinger of the Montana Free Press about his reporting on how the novel coronavirus is impacting Montana’s tourism industry.
JESS SHELDAHL: Thinking back a couple months ago to when the coronavirus was just starting to infect America, we saw reports on this phenomenon of people trying to ride out the pandemic by quarantining in Montana. Now that Montana has one of the lowest case counts in the country and businesses are starting to open up again, are we seeing a second wave of covid refugees?
JOHNATHAN HETTINGER: It is hard to know, but it’s definitely a concern. I know here in Livingston, where I live, there have been a lot of out of state plates at trailheads or local restaurants. But it’s hard to know if that’s because of COVID or thats just because it’s spring in Montana. That’s why the state is being so cautious with tourism and still enforcing a two week quarantine for out of state travelers.
JS: I know a few towns in Montana like Whitefish, the local government is actually asking hotels not to rent rooms to people on a walk in basis or for non essential purposes in an effort to limit people bringing the virus into communities that currently have no or very few cases. But a lot of those places depend on tourists to drive the local economy. How do these communities balance an economy driven by tourism with locals’ safety?
JH: Well I think that's the billion dollar question for gateway communities, and there are many differing opinions on how to best do that. So far, I know some guides have been able to return to work, especially like fishing guides. But I know it’s gonna be a long time before things get back to normal.
Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly announced the park’s reopening he said he wants to be cautious because the coming months are the highest generating for gateway communities.
JS: Speaking about Yellowstone National Park, one of the biggest draws for tourists coming to Montana are the National Parks, especially Glacier and Yellowstone. Since both parks have been closed since March what can we expect from Glacier and Yellowstone as they start reopening?
JH: Yellowstone’s Wyoming entrances up from Cody and Jackson are opening on Monday, but Governor Bullock said it will be at least June 1 until the Montana entrances open. Bullock also said he thinks it will be at least Jun 15 for Glacier. At first the park is gonna be day use only but they’ll take a look at things like camping and hotels later in the summer.
JS: In your article, you reference a video from the Glacier Country tourism region. Here’s a bit of that video, encouraging people to wait to visit Montana.
CLIP: “ Seek out the northern lights, winding rivers and heartwarming small towns. But right now, love Montana from the inside out. We’ll see you later and when that day comes it’ll be a great one.”
JS: The main tagline of the campaign says, "Love Now, Explore Later." What are you hearing from people who live in these recreation hotspots about how they view tourists this season? Are people living out there also saying don’t come here?
JH: It depends on who you talk to. I think it’s a really scary time in the tourism industry and businesses are looking for guidance. Last week, I know in Gardiner, the northern entrance to Yellowstone, more than 50 businesses came out for a socially distant chat with the local health officials on how to safely open.
Here in Park County we’re already seeing an increase in tourists but I think it will be a lot less than normal. People really aren’t flying much, so most tourists will be road trippers. It’s unlikely that there will be more cars than usual, but some people will still come.
I think that another big question is what does this look like for testing? Park and Gallatin counties are also starting to plan to do surveillance testing of people in Gardiner and West Yellowstone to see if tourism leads to an outbreak of COVID in these communities.
JS: You found in your latest story on tourism that Montana is the second hardest hit state in the country when it comes to COVID-19’s impact on tourism and that 94 percent of tourism businesses have been impacted. What kind of lasting economic change do you think might come out of this for Montana’s tourism industry?
JH: Well, I think it’s been really serious so far for the tourism industry. And I would not be surprised if many tourism related businesses go out of business. Many guides are independent contractors and a lot of tourism companies are your mom and pop shops that may not have a lot in reserves. I think people are going to continue to want to come here, but business surveys conducted by the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana are showing that some of those businesses might be in real trouble.
One major impact that is worrying a lot of people in this area and the Bozeman area is the effect on the airport in particular. One of the reasons the area has been able to grow, and Big Sky and West Yellowstone and Gardiner are able to have so many visitors, is because of the growth and number of flights of the Bozeman Yellowstone airport. If the air industry is severely impacted it might be a bit harder to get to Montana, which might mean it’s harder to ski, or fish, or visit Yellowstone.
Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed an audio clip to the Montana tourism office. The clip was produced by Glacier Country tourism region. YPR regrets the error.