Montana tourism statistics presented a bit of a conundrum in 2009.

Visitation at most state and national parks was way up this summer, especially at Montana’s principal tourist draws, Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. But at the same time, hotel occupancy rates plunged, and bed-tax revenues continued to decline, according to the Billings Gazette.

The mystery of the season became: Where did all these visitors stay?

“There has been a lot of confusion about that,” said Steve Wahrlich, owner of the Best Western Clock Tower Inn in downtown Billings.

“Are these people just driving to the park and turning around and going home? I don’t tend to believe that.”

After talking with other innkeepers in Bozeman, West Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, he’s convinced that park visitors were just as scarce there as anywhere else.

Maybe foreign visitors taking advantage of a weak dollar are flooding in and out of the parks without stopping anywhere else, he speculates. Maybe more travelers are renting RVs or camping.

He can only conclude that traditional ways of travel are changing.

There may be a good deal of truth in that, say others in the travel industry riding out the deepest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

After reviewing numbers for the second quarter of 2009, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that the travel industry nationally had contracted nearly $130 billion. The rate of decline was 1.4%, or twice that of the rest of the U.S. economy.

Montana actually fared better than most of the rest of country, said Stuart Doggett, executive director of the Montana Innkeepers Association.

He noted statistics from a Smith Travel Research report that show lodging occupancy rates in Montana down 5.2% through November. Occupancy rates were down 9.1% nationwide and 11.2% in the Mountain states.

The same survey showed Billings occupancy rates down 4%, the Bozeman/Yellowstone area down 6.5%, the Missoula/Butte area off 8% and the Helena/Great Falls area 3.7%.

Bed-tax revenue drops

Third-quarter lodging taxes reflected the downturn, with collections falling 7% behind third quarter 2008 figures, according to the Montana Department of Revenue.

Surprisingly, Glacier Country, the Montana tourism region that includes Glacier Park, showed the biggest decline at 9%. But Glacier Park visitation topped 2 million visitors in 2009 for only the third time in its history.

Bed-tax collections in Yellowstone Country were off 6%. Yellowstone Park, with more than 3.2 million visitors this year, set a record.

Some of the decline in bed-tax revenues could be attributed to deep price discounting in the lodging industry. It could also mean travelers were choosing fewer high-end accommodations.

Custer Country, which includes Billings, was down 6% in the third quarter. Billings, which has branded itself Montana’s Trailhead, frequently serves as a stopping-off place for some of the state’s biggest attractions, including Yellowstone Park and Little Bighorn Battlefield.

Visitation at Little Bighorn topped 303,000 and was up 7.4% at the end of November. Another Custer Country attraction, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, saw visits rise 15%.

Grant Kohrs Ranch historic site in southwestern Montana saw a 20% increase.

In Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park visitation was up just 0.4%.

Within Yellowstone itself, lodging facilities broke records in May, declined in June and finished the tourist season with very good numbers in July, August and especially September, said Rick Hoeninghausen, marketing and sales director for Xanterra, the park’s concessionaire.

“We had a very good year overall,” he said. “It was comparable to 2008. Flat is the new up.”

He said lodging held steady while food and retail sales were off a little. Occupancy was especially good at the four campgrounds and the RV park operated by the concessionaire.

Advance reservations for campgrounds are already up for the 2010 season, Hoeninghausen said.

“Parks do well during tough economic times,” he said. “We’re a good value, and we’re a drive destination.”

About 90% of the 10 million tourists who visit Montana each year arrive by car.

Hoeninghausen said evidence suggests that people are vacationing closer to home.

“Maybe what we’re actually seeing have been locals,” he said.

Montana state parks, which hosted a record 2 million visitors in 2009, reinforced the trend. Linda Howard, spokeswoman for the state parks division, said that 83%t of those visitors were Montanans, up slightly from 81% last year.

What was really significant in the year-end statistics was a 32% increase in overnight camping. More than 287,000 visitors stayed overnight. Half of the state’s 54 parks offer camping. In southeastern Montana, Tongue River Reservoir and Cooney Reservoir set new records. Cooney, the reservoir closest to Billings, had 143,012 visitors last year.

Pictograph Caves near Billings posted the biggest gain, with a 95% increase over 2008. More than 68,000 people stopped in to see the new visitor center.

Tourist habits changing

Sarah Lawlor, communications manager for Travel Montana, the state’s promotions arm, said people appear to be putting in fewer miles on their vacations and taking more frequent road trips instead of the traditional grand-tour vacation of the past.

National parks are seen as good values, especially with the addition last summer of three weekends on which entrance fees were waived.

“As we’ve heard and witnessed, people are continuing to travel despite our economic trials this past year, but they are adopting different travel habits,” she said. “Travel and vacations are essential to a lot of people, and, when finances are challenged as they were for many in the last year, they make accommodations.”

She said they spend less in areas that they can control, and that may mean camping instead of booking a hotel. Both tent camping and RV camping saw large increases in 2009, Lawlor said.

At Glacier, the number of backcountry overnight stays increased 52%, while RV stays increased 29%. Yellowstone saw a 7% increase in tent stays and a 12% increase in RV stays, she said.

Mike Gast, communications vice president for KOA, said the international campground company headquartered in Billings had one of its best summers ever.

Campgrounds near the national parks had years that were among their best ever, he noted. Many of those visitors were local or regional.

“People are just camping closer to home,” he said. “That’s a big trend for us.”

RV travelers, who make up 80$ of KOA visitors, held steady as did tent campers, who make of 10% of the guests.

The biggest growth was in cabin-type lodges that many campgrounds are adding to their accommodation choices.

Looking ahead

Forecasts for the 2010 tourist season are mixed.

The U.S. Travel Association, a national industry group, predicts modest growth of about 2%.

Hotelmarketing.com said a TripAdvisor survey showed that Americans plan to travel more in 2010. Forty-one percent said they will spend more on leisure travel, and 92% said they were planning two or more leisure trips in 2010, up from 89% in 2009.

And 66% said the economy won’t affect their travel plans.

Doggett, of the Montana Innkeepers Association, said most in the travel industry don’t expect much from the first quarter of 2010, but think an increase of 2-3% might be expected in the second and third quarters.

People are more optimistic than last year, Doggett said, but unforeseen factors that could change that.

“You never know about oil and gas prices,” he said.

Hoeninghausen said another emerging trend makes the season harder to predict: People are waiting until the last minute to make their reservations.

“Reservations came in as late as I remember last year,” he said.

Things were so slow in April that some reservations agents were sent home, he said.

“Things didn’t kick in until May,” he said. “It was like a light went on, and we were flooded with calls, and it just kept on that way through the summer.”