The Tourism Backlash

Gardiner Gate, Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The latest study just out from University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research finds the press of an increasing number of tourists is starting to wear on resident Montanans. For many, that comes as no surprise and more of a “firm grasp of the obvious.” When ten times the number of people who live in our state visit as tourists each year, the much-vaunted “elbow room” and slower pace of life Montanans are used to winds up being diminished by crowds of rude and rushed out-of-staters. For those who rely on or promote tourism, the Institute’s findings raise legitimate concerns that must be addressed.

The survey has been done annually since 1992 and points out that although a large majority of Montanans still think the benefits of tourism outweigh the negatives, that number has declined by 5% since the last survey. It’s also not much of a surprise that it’s the western side of the state, with its national parks and stunning mountains, that is feeling the most pressure and starting to voice displeasure with the loss of quality of life in exchange for the dollars the tourists spend here.

Although many would dispute that there are “limits to growth” and that Montana is so high, wide and handsome that we have plenty of room for all, the reality on the ground is increasing the feeling that we’re trying to stuff too many people on the finite resources and the enjoyment of traditional Montana lifestyles is being negatively impacted.

Again, this is nothing new to Montanans who are used to going down to their favorite river only to find it packed with people who have no idea regarding crowding other anglers, drifting through the hole you’re fishing, or even telling you to move so they can fish there. In the “old days” it was considered normal to stay out of sight of other anglers — but those days are gone. Now it’s not unusual to even get a lecture about how it’s done wherever they came from, prompting many Montanans to think or even say “maybe you should go fish back there.”

Montanans have long had an outstanding reputation for having a “live and let live” approach to life as well as being kind and courteous to others. It’s distressing to see the tourist pressures and attitudes beginning to erode that, but it’s about a lot more than just overcrowding the limited river miles, trails, parks and campgrounds.

Unfortunately, those who come from highly populated areas often simply have no idea about Montana or how they’re expected to act when they come here. And all too often they tailgate, pass on blind curves and hills, cross double yellow lines like they don’t exist because they think “the roads are empty and there are no cops.”

Of course they have no idea that when they go speeding over the blind hill so they can “bag” Yellowstone and Glacier in the same day, they may well find a deer or elk standing in the road — or a rancher in a very wide and slow-moving tractor pulling a load of hay for the cattle. These are things Montanans know well, exercise appropriate caution, and prudently allow a little “stopping room” between vehicles.

Unfortunately, the examples of erratic behavior by tourists to Montana are nearly endless. But as the study shows, there’s a growing backlash from Montana residents who are feeling their own quality of life diminishing as we approach our “limits to growth” on tourism — and that cannot and should not be ignored by the tourism industry.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.