by Nathan Boddy
Several dozen people met at the Bitterroot Inn Convention Center on Monday, November 1st as Glacier Country Tourism (GCT) kicked off a whole new focus for the region, which includes Ravalli County. The nonprofit, whose 34 year history has been centered around marketing western Montana as a tourist destination, will now be adopting Destination Stewardship, a relatively new way of promoting tourism, while giving consideration to its impacts, quality of life for residents, and long term sustainability.
Racene Friede, the Glacier Country Tourism President and CEO, began the Town Hall meeting by detailing the history of the GCT, and its funding from Montana lodging facilities taxes. She pointed out that, since the GCT began its efforts in 1987, tourism in Montana has grown to be the state’s second largest industry, bringing in $4 billion into the state annually, with another $1 billion being spent in tourism by Montanans in their own state. But, she added that the numbers shouldn’t be the only important factor moving forward. “The metric of ‘volume’ is no longer a useful way to measure success,” said Fried. “The other is the quality of life for residents.”
Friede also pointed out that, while tourism in Montana has certainly been a financial benefit, over-tourism has occasionally been a result. “Five years ago, we actually stopped marketing Glacier National Park during the peak tour season. It was already receiving over-tourism.” The focus for the GCT, at that point, was to shift its marketing efforts to off-season promotion, as well as the promotion of other nearby locations. In a similar way, the GCT is shifting again, this time toward Destination Stewardship. Friede says that the GCT is interested in maintaining the cultural, environmental, economic and aesthetic integrity of the region.
“It’s really a shift from promoting communities, to engaging stewardship in communities. In turn, it will help provide a more livable, sustainable, and desirable destination for us, the people who live here, because that’s who we are ultimately doing this for.”
As pointed out by Friede, the need for such a shift has never been higher since the COVID-19 pandemic shifted people’s preference for travel. “People (are) seeking out wide-open spaces and places with low population density. Montana is one of the places they choose because of our outdoor recreation.” Nonetheless, tourism in Montana and the impacts that it brings can be a mixed bag. Thus, the reason for the GCT’s switch to Destination Stewardship. “We have to measure success (of tourism) against the overall well-being of our destinations. We are really trying to preserve the quality of life for us, as well as the quality of experience for the visitors.”
To address this end, the GCT has engaged with two tourism oriented consulting firms. Jim McCaul, of MMGY Next Factor and Cathy Ritter, of Better Destinations, were both present to help GCT as it began this new approach, which they estimate will take approximately 10 months to complete. First on the agenda is the completion of a series of Town Hall meetings throughout Glacier Country (which encompasses most of Northwestern Montana from Cut Bank to Conner) and widespread resident and stakeholder surveys. Jim McCaul, who expressed his excitement at being part of one of the very first Destination Stewardship projects in North America, said that, “Our whole mission is focused on how we use travel and tourism as a transformative force for good in communities.”
Cathy Ritter echoed that sentiment by adding, “This is one of the first destinations stewardships to be developed in the United States. We operate from a belief that the people who live in a destination are the ones that hold the keys to the destination’s success. These are your homes. You also know what’s special about these places, what you want to share, and the kind of people you want to invite in.”
Last Monday’s meeting was only the first, but it did give participants an opportunity to voice their opinions as to what they envision as good and appropriate types of tourism in western Montana. As an example, Jim McCaul questioned whether participants thought the ideal visitor to the state would be more curious, outdoor inclined, art seeking, or adventure seeking. As a clear juxtaposition, he pointed out the difference between a group of young bachelors on a weekend getaway, versus that of a group of sportsmen who’d come for a particular outdoor experience. McCaul says that the trend in tourism world-wide seems to be one of ‘seeking authentic experiences,’ meaning that visitors want to do what locals do, eat what they eat and see what they see. This, he says, is the very reason for widespread industry growth of entities like Airbnb. “I’m not looking for a cheesy tourist bar,” he says, adding that visitors, “are blending in more than ever.”