2013 Tourism Outlook is Bright for Western Montana

By JUSTIN FRANZ for the Flathead Beacon Newspaper

More tourists are coming to Montana and spending more money, according to data released by the Montana Office of Tourism, which showed a 3 percent visitation increase in 2012. And, according to those in the tourism industry, 2013 is looking even better.

Inns and attractions along the edge of Glacier National Park are reporting more summer reservations this year. However, some worry that a delayed opening of the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road, will affect that growth. 

“We’ve been doing crazy fantastic,” said Stephen Malek, general manager of the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. “We’re going to blow (2012) out of the water.”

According to Malek, summer reservations at the historic railroad inn along U.S. Highway 2 are strong and should surpass last year’s and winter reservations are up 20 to 30 percent.

He also said winter reservations are up 20 to 30 percent, something he believes indicate a newfound trust in the economy.

Mike Clark, left, paddles out onto Lake McDonald with his 10-year-old son, Caleb Clark, while visiting Glacier National Park from Kentucky. – Lido Vizzutti | FlatheadBeacon

“It just seems that more people are coming out to escape,” he said. “I’d like to think people are starting to spend again.”

It’s the same story just down the road in West Glacier, at the Belton Chalet, the first Glacier hotel built by the Great Northern Railway in 1910. According to general manager Christie Dunn, reservations are up this year and she expects July and August to be sold out. The historic hotel has 25 rooms, two cottages and a vacation home for rent.

“In the peak season, every day is a Saturday,” she said.

Dunn also said the month of September is getting busier every year and suggested that people enjoy the mild temperatures of early fall. However, she also expressed concern about a delayed opening of the Going-to-the-Sun Road inside Glacier National Park.

Because of budget cuts within the National Park Service, thanks to the government sequester, a the opening of the road from West Glacier to St. Mary could be delated. Glacier Outdoor Center owner Darwon Stoneman said reservations are double what they were a year ago at this time. However, there is a drought of customers in early July, which he attributes to rumors about the Sun Road.

“It forces everyone to push their reservations back in July,” he said. “There are plenty of other things to do, but people still equate the park opening with the road opening.”

Although a delayed opening concerns Stoneman, the number of reservations he is seeing for the rest of the summer appears to calm those fears. According to the state’s tourism office, visitation at both of Montana’s national parks was up in 2012.

“I’d say it’s an indication that people are more optimistic about the economy,” he said. “But also because Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park are just iconic places for a family vacation.”