Grunke: Tourism contributes $310M to Missoula economy

By James Grunke

Vacation season is officially upon us, and with it the arrival of out-of-state guests at Montana’s internationally renowned tourist destinations. And that got me thinking, as Memorial Day weekend approached, about the oftentimes unrecognized role tourism plays in economic development.

Traditionally, economic development professionals looked down on tourism. That has changed in recent years, though, as the lines separating economic, community and tourism development blurred.

What is the world’s No. 1 export? You’re wrong if you guessed oil, food or electronics. The answer is tourism.

In Missoula County alone, tourism contributes $310 million a year to the economy.

Here’s why that matters to economic development: Tourism is often the first exposure that would-be business owners and their future employees have to a city or region.

It’s easy to forget that we live in a place other people only get to visit on vacation. So when we struggle to meet workforce needs as our community grows, we should be greeting our summertime visitors with a wider message: Come, and enjoy. Then stay, and prosper.

Tourism and economic development go hand in hand. Think about what makes a place a good tourism destination. How different are these attributes from those a community needs for economic development? The lists look much the same:

  • A good environment. No one wants to visit a place that is unclean or unhealthy. In the same way, communities that fail to provide pleasant surroundings and a clean environment have a difficult time attracting new businesses.
  • Tourism requires friendly people and good service. You can have all the mountains or manmade attractions in the world, but a tourist destination that lacks good customer service and friendly people will fail. In the same way, unsupportive communities cannot attract new people and businesses – or hold onto either those newcomers or their young people and established businesses.
  • Tourism requires a secure community. Often, government officials and even police departments fail to recognize their economic impact. Police departments and other essential government agencies such as fire and emergency services are significant components of a desirable community.
  • Tourists want good restaurants, hotels and activities. Those same factors are essential to any community pursuing economic development.
  • People who consider moving a business or industry to a community have their first encounters as tourists or visitors. If they are not treated well, there is very little chance they will move their business and family there.

That’s why we take tourism seriously at the Missoula Economic Partnership. The statistics bear us out.

In the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research 2017 Annual Economic Report, tourism was one of Montana’s top economic drivers, with:

  • 12 million-plus non-resident visitors,
  • $3.5 billion in spending,
  • 52,000-plus jobs, and
  • Almost $200 million in state and local tax receipts.

Missoula County’s $310 million in annual receipts ranks it fourth highest in the state.

Fortunately, we have two tremendous tourism development assets in Missoula, starting with Destination Missoula, led by Barb Neilan and her team. Every year, these folks reach hundreds of thousands of people who want to come and experience Missoula.

We can and should link our business recruitment efforts to the same communities that Destination Missoula targets for tourism campaigns.

We’re also fortunate to have a Tourism Business Improvement District that, in addition to its efforts to entice people to Missoula events, is a critical partner in MEP’s efforts to improve our air service.

The one thing I have learned in this endeavor is that the only way to decrease air fares and increase competition is by increasing leisure travelers – tourists. And you want them coming back year after year, in every season.

We have real-life examples of how tourism complements economic development, too. Just this past year, a small manufacturing company relocated from Southern California to Missoula after the owners visited as tourists, fell in love with our city and state, and reached out to us for relocation assistance.

Community support is essential for tourism. Businesses that are part of the tourist industry depend not only on one another, but on other local businesses, government and residents.

The economic benefits and costs of tourism reach virtually everyone in the region in one way or another. By increasing tourism in western Montana, economic development and growth is encouraged. More tourists mean more demand, more jobs and higher revenues, including higher tax receipts for local and national governments.

So greet those tourists you meet on a downtown corner this summer with a smile and a handshake. They could be your next-door neighbor, or your new boss, by next summer!

James Grunke is chief executive officer of the Missoula Economic Partnership. He writes a monthly column for the Missoulian’s Sunday Western Montana InBusiness section.