Summer tourism up despite Montana fire season

Toni Schneider greets the Last Chance Tour Train outside Birds and Beasleys in Helena

Summer tourists continue to pour into Montana, even with the high heat and hazy skies of our wildfire season. The state’s top destinations are actually seeing an uptick from last Summer.

When the staff of Helena’s Birds and Beasley’s gift shop hear a certain bell a’ringing several of the ladies, like Toni Schneider, drop what they’re doing and make a mad dash for the entrances, welcome signs in hand.

“We greet the tour train when they come by, to say thanks for visiting Helena and come see us because we give them a free gift with their tour train ticket,” Schneider said.

The Last Chance Tour Train chugs up the middle of Helena’s downtown several times daily—jam packed with Summer tourists.

Schneider says it’s been fruitful.

“Oh, we’ve seen good numbers,” she said.

She says visitors can’t resist the shop’s hand-made Montana arts and crafts.

I mean, how could they not come?

Schneider says it’s the best gift shop in Helena.

“You wouldn’t be biased?” I asked

“Of course I’m biased,” she laughed.

Higher sales at Birds and Beasley’s are probably a little anecdotal.

The store just moved to a new, much bigger, location right in the heart of Last Chance Gulch.

Their old store was one street off the main drag.

Communications Manager at the Montana Office of Tourism, Sarah Lawlor says that shop’s not the only one doing well, though.

“When we talk to businesses,” Lawlor said, “the general consensus has been that tourism travel has been really strong this summer.”

Lawlor says things were looking pretty dire early in the season. The land dried out late in the Spring, several big fires started in June. But major tourism hubs have been spared.

“We’ve been fortunate that the fires that we have been seeing throughout the state haven’t been in the most densely visited areas of the state,” she said.

Tourism office statistics show Yellowstone National Park is by far the number one reason visitors come to Montana. June visitation there was solid. July figures are not quite in yet.

Glacier National Park is number two. There, June visitation was up noticeably from 2011. Last year, high snowpack stopped the park from opening the Going to the Sun Road until mid-July, the latest opening on record.

“So this year they were able to open a full three weeks earlier which makes a significant difference for that area of the state,” Lawlor said.

Lawlor feels optimistic about the rest of the peak Summer tourism season—about two more weeks. Even if wildfire severity really picks back up again, she says people have usually already made their plans. Plus, her office has been seeing some of a shift toward Autumn tourism in the state.

“Some areas of the state are seeing significant bookings through October. So we should be seeing strong travel right through the Fall,” Lawlor said.

Those cooler temperatures may give the staff of Birds and Beasleys another tactic to draw tourists into their cozy gift shop.

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