Ski numbers are down, but geotourism is filling the vacuum.
While most places in North America attempt to attract outdoor visitors by appealing to their adventurous sides, offering up slogans like California’s “Find yourself here,” Canada’s “Keep exploring,” or Connecticut’s “Full of surprises,” the state of Montana has taken a different approach.
“There’s nothing there” is the slogan the Big Sky State has adopted, and according to Norma Nickerson, the director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana (U of M), it’s been a huge success.
Dr. Nickerson explained that the simple beauty of the message is really connecting with people, especially in the all-important and growing “geo travelers” movement, which now accounts for 53 million Americans each year.
“People want to visit places with clean air, open spaces, and wildlife,” she said, during a presentation for the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association conference in Polson, Montana, last spring. Three elements the 41st state offers in abundance.
Dr. Nickerson opened her talk by explaining that doctors in Missoula, the home of U of M, are now prescribing long walks as part of the treatment for ailments of all kinds, as studies have shown that the simple act of taking long strolls in the fresh air helps alleviate symptoms of various diseases, especially autoimmune disorders like allergies, hay fever and asthma.
In our ever-increasingly computer-centric world it’s becoming more and more important to simply get out there, even if you don’t do more than just walk around. And as Dr. Nickerson explained, the affects of climate change are actually having an overall positive effect on tourism and recreation, except for those involving snow sports.
This comes as good news for most mountain towns, but ultimately bad news for ski resorts. According to U of M’s research, the ski industry in particular is being negatively impacted by climate change. December and January were once the kings of ski season, but February and March are now the biggest months, which means winter tourism in the West is shrinking. There are even whispers that sports like snowmobiling may eventually cease to exist in most parts of the continent.
But where one door closes, another always opens. The shorter winters mean longer falls and springs and these traditional “slack seasons” in most ski towns are seeing expansions in visitation.
According to Dr. Nickerson’s research, the biggest reasons people are now visiting the mountain West are for bicycling, bird and wildlife watching, fishing, hiking and camping; all primarily warmer weather activities.
While the big cost of skiing used to infuse Western states with large quantities of cash each winter, the money is now coming in other forms and at other times of the year. For example, Dr. Nickerson explained that guided fishing trips now bring in $168 million dollars to the state of Montana annually.
The other good news for places attracting these geo travelers is that they actually tend to spend more money across a variety of businesses. According to the U of M’s research, bicycling tourists stay longer and spend more money than any other type of tourist. Bicyclists also tend to hike, fish and visit museums during their travels. To a slightly lesser degree, the same things happen with bird and wildlife watchers, hikers, road trippers and even campers.
Wildlife viewing is becoming much more important for our predominately urban-based country. More than 40% of the more than three million people who now visit Yellowstone National Park on the Montana, Wyoming and Idaho borders say they’re visiting primarily to see wolves. Who would have guessed that it may be more helpful for ski towns like Sun Valley, Idaho, or Mammoth Lakes, California, to start promoting their ample elk, bear or trout populations over their powder days?
As for the best way of reaching the geo traveling audience, Dr. Nickerson reported that there’s no single foolproof method. Rather, it appears that geo travelers get their information from a variety of media; such visitors are “using and valuing” everything from magazines and local newspapers to TV ads and social media mentions and promotions.
The key to attracting the large market of geo tourists is to make sure folks know that a place offers fresh air, some open space, a chance to see wildlife, and the opportunity to simply do nothing.
Odds and ends … Mammoth Lakes Tourism Board Chair Brent Truax told The Sheet that the extension with MLT Exec. Director John Urdi was signed Wednesday. He also said he would not provide The Sheet a copy of the contract it requested, asserting that the contract is a private document, even though Urdi is essentially paid by local taxpayers and businesses. Hmm. Why is this being kept hidden from the public?