Montana’s travel and tourism industry is staying on track with last year despite the gas per gallon price statewide flirting with the $3 mark, according to a report in the Billings Gazette.
“We’ve got record-high gas prices, but we haven’t seen a decrease in travel,” said Denise Harris, spokeswoman for Montana AAA. “We keep saying there has to be a breaking point, but we just haven’t seen it.”
The Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) forecast growth of less than 1% nationally. Betsy Baumgart – director of Travel Montana, state government’s tourism arm – says she expects the tourism industry here to see growth exceeding 2%.
“In general, we’re hearing a pretty positive response,” she said. “We’re hearing it’s been a good summer.”
Baumgart said it’s difficult to tell what effect, if any, rising gas prices have on Montana tourism. Tourists are still coming, she said, but may tend to rein in food, lodging and purchases while they are here. Although she has heard that the national trend is for people to make shorter trips, she hasn’t seen or heard much evidence of that in Montana.
Travelers with the highest fuel consumption, owners of RVs, appear to be undeterred by high gas prices, said Mike Gast, spokesman for KOA Kampgrounds, headquartered in Billings.
“It’s been a surprising year for us,” he said.
As of July 8, numbers were above those of last year. Ten teams of inspectors visiting company campgrounds nationwide are hearing that gas prices leave little impression, Gast said.
“What they’ve been finding out is high gas prices are not stopping people from traveling,” he said. “Camping is a lifestyle decision. It’s why they work. To them, it’s not a discretionary decision.”
Gast said a shift in camping patterns seems to be occurring. People are spending the same number of nights camping, but they may not be traveling as far and may be staying at a campground longer.
People put a lot of money into their RVs, he said.
“How likely is it they are not going to use them?” he said.
Other attractions in the region are seeing shrinking numbers, and at least some of it is because of gas prices, officials say.
Darrell Cook, National Park Service superintendent at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, said visitation was down at both parks, but for different reasons.
Suzanne Cook, senior vice president for research for the Travel Industry Association of America, said that although the price of gasoline generally won’t increase the cost of a vacation significantly, the family’s overall bottom line may be adversely affected by the everyday cost of transportation.
On a broader scale, Cook also said that gas prices threaten to trigger inflation, which undermines economic growth and consumer confidence.
Nationwide research by Cook’s organization shows that Americans expect to stay an average of six nights away on their longest vacation trip and spend an average of $1,033. Despite rising gas prices, that figure is about the same as last year’s average of $1,019.