Mon. Sep 25th, 2023

Workers de-ice a plane beyond the construction of concrete walls for Glacier Park International Airport’s terminal expansion project on Wednesday, Nov. 30. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)
Tourism remained strong in the Flathead Valley this year following a bounce back from Covid but industry leaders remain nervous that a possible economic recession could trigger a slowdown in 2023.
Although 2022 visitation and lodging numbers are about the same as the year prior, this summer proved less active than the historically busy 2021, which saw a huge spike in demand following the pandemic-lessened summer numbers in 2020.
The difference has been made up with higher visitation numbers in months that those in the local tourism industry traditionally consider the off-season.
According to flight data provided by Glacier Park International Airport, or FCA, nearly 400,000 passengers departed or arrived this year through November. If traffic remains near projected levels for December, the airport will set a new record, eclipsing last year’s 416,224 travelers.
The number of travelers going through the airport between July and September this year closely matched the levels seen in 2019, before Covid threw a wrench in the area’s tourism sector.
2021 marked a massive bounceback for air travel to and from the Flathead Valley, and a spike in summer visitation drove FCA’s record number of travelers.
Although the airport is poised to eclipse those records this year, monthly data shows that the rise can be attributed to previously unseen tourism levels earlier in the year, particularly in March and April.
Lodging data shows similar trends. According to Dylan Deane-Boyle, director of Explore Whitefish, the city’s tourism bureau, lodging data in Whitefish hotels and rentals is roughly on par with 2021, although the amount of visitors during the peak summer season declined from last year’s levels, coming in closer to pre-pandemic numbers.
Lodging in the county seat followed similar patterns, according to data from Discover Kalispell. According to Diane Medler, the tourism bureau’s director, occupancy in Kalispell through October was up 3% over last year, but July and August numbers were down from last summer.
Medler attributed the drop to several factors, including higher gas and airfare prices and Going-to-the-Sun Road’s mid-July opening date as well as Glacier National Park’s reservation system.
Amtrak also reported higher traffic so far this year, with the most recent data available showing that more than 40,000 people boarded or disembarked at the Whitefish Depot. Last year, about 30,000 passengers were recorded at Whitefish, according to Amtrak documents.
According to border crossing data collected by Explore Whitefish, it remains to be seen when or if Canadian visitation will reach pre-pandemic heights. While summer personal vehicle passenger crossings at the Port of Roosville increased over pandemic-era numbers, they have not returned to the levels reached in 2019 and earlier, according to Deane-Boyle.
The bureau also tracks spending on Canadian-issued credit cards, and found that it only accounted for about 6% of spending in Whitefish during the peak summer tourism months.
Meanwhile, in Kalispell, according to Medler, credit card spending by non-residents was up 22% through September over the same period last year.
LOOKING AHEAD to 2023, hoteliers are moving forward with renovation projects and are optimistic about the year’s outlook, but know that a potential wide-scale economic downturn could dampen the appetite for travel.
According to Edna White, marketing director for The Lodge at Whitefish Lake, the hotel is planning an update to its tiki bar and constructing an ice skating rink and igloos for winter visitors to enjoy.
“We have high expectations for 2023,” White said. “[But] we’re just going to wait and see what happens, there seems to be a lot of unpredictability.”
Glacier National Park also is expanding its reservation system next summer to include access to the Two Medicine and Many Glacier valleys. Reservations will be required from July 1 through Sept. 10 between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m.
In an effort to curb traffic congestion in the park, officials had already implemented a reservation system for Going-to-the-Sun Road and the North Fork entrance.
After gathering traffic and entrance data that showed another increase in visitation last year, park officials decided that more had to be done because of limited parking availability.
Reporter Adrian Knowler can be reached at 758-4407 or
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