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Community members participate in long-term tourism planning

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RONAN — During a listening session facilitated by Glacier Country Tourism last week, Lake County community members shared perceived benefits and challenges of area tourism and what they’d like to see in the future for the state’s second largest industry.

Founded for the purpose of travel promotion 34 years ago, Glacier Country Tourism stopped marketing Glacier National Park during the busy summer season five years ago. Instead, the nonprofit organization began promoting travel during off-peak months and increased travel promotion of the region’s eight counties: Flathead, Glacier, Lake, Lincoln, Mineral, Missoula, Ravalli and Sanders. In September, the organization has shifted again to include input from these counties as they craft a destination stewardship plan that will guide future travel promotion efforts. The 10-month process to develop a 10-year action plan begins with engaging communities through town hall meetings. The Nov. 2 meeting held at the Mission Mountain Golf Club in Ronan was the third such event. Those attending were a mix of business leaders and community members including representatives from Mission West, Valley Bank, Glacier Bank, Arlee CDC, Miracle of America Museum, Polson Chamber of Commerce, Ronan Chamber of Commerce, St. Luke Community Healthcare, Polson Red Lion, Ronan Schools and local State Senator Dan Salomon.

According to Glacier Country Tourism CEO Racene Friede, Glacier Country’s Board of Directors has started to measure success not only by economic benefits, but also by the social well-being of the communities it serves. Balancing the needs of visitors with the needs of residents to build “purposeful tourism” is the goal, explained project consultant Jim McCaul.

In regards to future planning, spreading visitation out over a longer period of time to ease congestion during peak summer months of July and August was discussed. 

The money tourists contribute to local economies and the new preferences they bring that help businesses grow their offerings were seen as beneficial. Longtime business owner Gerry Browning of Polson said, “Visitors help us raise the bar. They bring different perspectives, want different kinds of drinks, food, entertainment – it makes us raise the bar as we meet new, varied tastes.”

New revenue sources for area farmers and ranchers through agritourism events, like the annual Pedal to Plate bicycling tour, was listed as another benefit.

Some of tourism’s enumerated drawbacks ranged from increased traffic, lack of respect (littering) and understanding of area values, to congestion and access to local recreation areas. A lack of housing, particularly affordable housing, for both permanent residents and visitors, was noted as a particular challenge for Lake County. 

When asked to describe the ideal tourist, “respectful” was a common response. Families, retirees, and low-impact visitors such a cyclers, and canine field trial participants were specifically listed. More broadly, visitors with similar lifestyles, specifically a shared appreciation of the outdoors, and especially other Montanans, were the most ideal.

Friede noted that while non-resident visitors spend almost $4 billion annually in Montana, Montanans themselves spend over $1 billion a year on in-state tourism. 

In a letter she passed out at the Ronan meeting, Friede says, “We will be looking at how to turn challenges into opportunities, how to maximize growth to our economy, how to protect our way of life and the lands we love and how to strengthen our communities for generations to come.”

For more information about Glacier Country’s destination stewardship planning, visit A timeline of the process, resident surveys and stakeholder assessments can also be found at the above link.

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