In an effort to tame tourism, stakeholders seek to define ‘destination stewardship’

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Business leaders and community stakeholders from across the Flathead Valley met with representatives from Glacier Country Tourism (GCT) this week to discuss a new strategy to curb traditional marketing campaigns in favor of a more sustainable approach, which aims to create “destination stewards” in an area overrun by footfall.

Dubbing it the “Destination Stewardship Strategy,” GCT launched the campaign at a meeting on November 4, which marked the first step in a 10-year collaborative partnership between the tourism industry and tourism industry. other key community sectors. The strategy marks a move away from destination marketing and instead aims to manage aging infrastructure, overcrowding and impacts on the local way of life.

For example, instead of promoting a destination for the amenities it can offer its visitors, the strategy invites visitors to ask what values ​​they can offer a destination, especially through greener and more equitable activities.

In the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the growth of the travel and tourism industry overtook the global economy. In Montana, tourism is the second largest industry, bringing in billions of dollars to the state each year and supporting tens of thousands of jobs for residents. According to GCT President and CEO Racene Friede, non-resident visitors have spent between $ 3.2 billion and $ 3.7 billion in Montana in recent years.

The plan aims to create a sustainable strategic vision for the Glacier Country visitor economy that preserves the quality of life and quality of place for residents of western communities.

Friede, along with consultants Jim McCaul of MMGY NextFactor and Cathy Ritter of Better Destinations, led the forum, which was also attended by members of the Strategy Steering Committee, including Aubrie Lorona of Swan Mountain Outfitters.

A series of questions guided the two-hour conversation, including a virtual poll asking participants to define “destination stewardship”. Responses, which were displayed on a screen in front of the crowd, included: “Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Another read: “The buzzwords used to coat the fact that tourism has been damaging to the environment, to communities and to individuals. “

Such feelings are not new. Record-breaking crowds at Glacier National Park have sparked considerable opposition to the promotion of tourism and increased tension towards newcomers to the valley. Social media accounts and online comment sections have expressed concerns about the increase in visits.

Nonetheless, the consultants and participants envisioned what the ideal visitor would look like while recognizing that visits to western Montana will continue to increase.

Brandon Gonski, managing director of Glacier Raft Co., has proposed modifying travel requests to attract different demographic groups. “Why are we in this conference room right now?” Gonski asked. “Why is there no business here? Let’s get a company to host a conference here so business travelers can spend money in our stores and restaurants in November.

Several ideas circulated in the room, including tourism education. Stakeholders familiar with the industry offered their suggestions and ideas, for example on how to distribute visitors in shoulder seasons to mitigate crowds during peak season.

“There are so many different opportunities that tourists don’t know about,” said Rhonda Fitzgerald of the Whitefish Visitors Bureau, the Governor’s Advisory Board of Tourism and owner of the Garden Wall Inn and Whitefish. “As a member of the tourist board, we try to educate visitors from different areas outside of Glacier Park that way we can spread the use of recreation.”

Concerned residents spoke out about visitors’ behavior, citing their lack of respect or awareness of the environment. One participant compared destination marketing to amusement park attractions: “People assume that because they are on vacation, no one lives here and everything is for their entertainment, like its Disneyland. “

Others were eager to correct bad habits, such as speed, garbage, and impatience that stretched beyond the confines of Glacier. They too have been thinking about the possibility of a tourism campaign to educate visitors on how to travel responsibly.

“What if, upon arrival at Glacier Park International Airport, visitors were greeted with public service announcements emphasizing Montana values? Asked a participant. “Slogans like, ‘What’s the rush? Or “Drive slowly” would help educate visitors and even new residents of how we behave here. “

Such sentiments echo GCT’s recent partnership in the national Responsible Recreating initiative. The tourism campaign teaches visitors how to be good stewards of Montana’s people, culture and land with slogans such as “know before you go” and “respect others.”

Erica Wirtala of the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors made one final comment at the end of the meeting, drawing attention to the myths that attract newcomers, including the one that Montana still exists as a true Wild West.

“There’s a clandestine message that says, ‘Come to Montana and do whatever you want,’” Wirtala said. According to Wirtala, a belief like this causes people to lose sight of how to act safely and responsibly.

For 34 years, GCT has marketed the region as a travel destination. The state-mandated 1987 sales and accommodation facility use tax (4%), commonly known as the “bed tax,” collects funds that the Commerce Department spends on tourism promotion. However, GCT is among the first tourism organizations in the United States to dedicate resources to a destination management plan.

GCT will be hosting a virtual meeting on November 18 for those who were unable to attend City Hall in person.

The group will continue to engage with communities through discussion groups and electronic surveys for residents and industry stakeholders. The results will be released in spring 2022.

For more information, visit partners.glaciermt.com/destination-stewardship.

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