Tourism Benefits Montana Response Op Ed

Published in Missoulian, Dec. 23, 2022


I was dismayed to read the eloquent, yet misguided editorial by George Ochenski titled Time to stop promoting Montana this week while visiting Eastern Montana to listen and learn about the challenges facing many rural communities. 


I’m reminded when I travel to small towns that the welcoming hospitality I grew up with is alive and well and fortunately hasn’t fallen to the author’s perspective of viewing our amazing state and its recreational experiences with a “locals only” mentality.


George made several important observations on the need to steward our lands and natural resources by engaging residents on a path to a sustainable visitor economy. Unfortunately, the piece chose not to acknowledge the innovative work already being done on a state, regional and local level.


There are many examples where traditional destination marketing organizations (DMOs) have shifted resources to advocate for Recreating Responsibly and Leave No Trace. Under the author’s solution to limit DMOs’ budgets, he’s limiting the effectiveness and opportunity to educate visitors and residents alike to care for our resources to be enjoyed in the future. 


The author mentions money derisively as the problem, but not all Montanans are in a financial position to be so cavalier. In 2021 non-resident visitors spent $5.15 billion dollars generating $1.3 billion for the nearly 50,000 jobs created by their spending, and wages are going up. If Montana were to lose this injection of revenue that circulates through our Main Streets, small businesses would close their doors and thousands of Montanans would be out of work.


Much was made of the 12 million visitors who experience Montana spread all year across all of our communities. What the data shows is that number has been largely consistent for the past 5 years, but those who are visiting are spending more. Attracting high value, low impact visitors does not happen by accident—it is the result of smart, strategic and targeted marketing all while facing significant competition as other destinations invest to gain back market share. 


Taxes collected with lodging stays do support attracting visitors, but half of the dollars collected benefit the state general fund that in turn, defray taxes paid by residents, in fact, spending by non-residents lowers the tax burden for each Montana household by $866.00.  Additional beneficiaries of the current model include support for Montana State Parks, aquatic invasive species mitigation, tribal tourism, historical and heritage preservation.  Only about 30% of total bed taxes collected go to the state to market Montana. 


For the last several years, marketing efforts in areas near the national parks have focused on dispersing visitors across seasons and places—encouraging travel to Montana during less busy seasons: winter, spring and fall (not summer), and continuing to market communities that would benefit from more visitors coming and spending their dollars.


Additionally, a group called the Tourism Solutions Roundtable formed over the summer to find additional ways to spread visitors around the state. That group, made up of people representing land management, private business, economic development, marketing and rural elected officials, proposed seven ideas to disperse visitors and support rural areas with tourism product development. Several of those efforts are being adopted at the state level.


I take pride in sharing and showing off our state. I haven’t lived anywhere else, so perhaps I’ve taken it for granted that my neighbors share that view. It’d be devastating to see the state shift policies—only to punish communities that rely on visitor dollars to maintain the charm and character that enhances their livability for residents with thriving restaurants, retail, services, and transportation.

Dax Schieffer lives in Helena and is the director of Voices of Montana Tourism, a statewide group providing education and outreach on the value of a sustainably-grown travel industry for all Montanans.