While the debate over a local option sales tax plays out in the Legislature, the state's tourism industry logged a solid year in 2018, with western Montana leading the way.

Of $3.7 billion spent in Montana's five tourism regions, Glacier Country captured $1.1 billion. That includes $295 million in Missoula County, placing it third outside Gallatin and Flathead counties.

“Those regions closest to the two national parks are the ones that receive most of the dollars,” said Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana. “The travel industry is definitely stimulating what's going on around the state.”

While the state as a whole widely benefits from tourism, some regions remain hotter than others. Missoula may not top the list or consider itself a “tourism destination,” but it does well when it comes to the industry.

Though the final quarter from 2018 is not yet compiled, early indications show a strong year. The expectations are that it will continue into 2019.

“In the first three quarters of 2018, we're already up 4 percent over what we were last year,” said Barb Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula. “I expect to see that continue. Last year we had a 3 percent increase, and this year we're sitting at 4.”

Summer is easily Missoula's busiest quarter when it comes to tourism, capturing most of the visitors and much of their spending. But the spring quarter is closing in, thanks to a wide range of new activities, from tournaments at Fort Missoula Regional Park to concerts at the KettleHouse Amphitheater.

“Where we saw some growth last year was the quarter from April 1 to June 30,” Neilan said. “We had a 9 percent increase in visitation this last year, so we went back and did some research to find out what was going on in that time period.”

Last June marked the opening of the second phase of Missoula's new regional park, which hosted its first large softball tournamen that month. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association held a regional fly-in at Missoula International Airport in June as well, bringing hundreds of pilots to the city.

Neilan also pointed to a number of local conferences, though Fort Missoula may have topped them all when it comes to the draw.

“We were really excited seeing that change and what the region park will do,” Neilan said. “This year will be the first year we'll really be able to compare June to June and really see what a full opening of the park has done and what we're bringing in.”

Nickerson also believes Missoula is poised for tourism growth, and it continues to capture a respectable portion of Montana's nonresident spending.

It's not missed on state economists that Montana's increased visitation and spending has trended alongside growth of the Missoula and Bozeman airports.

“There's a positive correlation between the number of nonresidents we have coming to Montana and the ability of our airports to convince airlines to come here directly from other airports,” Nickerson said. “There are five capital cities around the country that don't even have commercial air service. We're very lucky to have what we have.”

Like the Bozeman airport, Missoula International has seen significant growth over the past few years, logging a record 850,000 passengers last year. That growth has fueled the demand for a new passenger terminal now under construction.

As passenger traffic at the airport grew, nonresident visitation across Montana increases 22 percent. Of the 12 million visitors to Montana last year, roughly 11 percent flew into the state and spent roughly five nights.

“With all the seats that have been put in the market because of American and the new flights, and airlines dropping their prices, it has had a huge impact for us,” said Neilan. “That's been a big one for us.”

Of the $3.7 billion spent by nonresident tourists last year, Nickerson said it carried a $5.2 billion economic impact, created 58,800 jobs and generated $1.17 billion in labor income.