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Montana tourism leaders bracing for long recovery after COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 2:26 PM, Apr 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-08 16:26:41-04

It's hard to find an industry hit harder by the COVID-19 outbreak than tourism.

Across the world, travelers have canceled vacations, hotels and resorts are sitting empty and everyone wonders how long will it take before people are comfortable traveling again.

During a teleconference hosted by the Billings Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, industry leaders in Montana warned that tourism's turnaround from the coronavirus pandemic could take several months or even years.

First, the good news: A survey of 1,200 Americans conducted this past weekend by Destination Analyst indicates a majority say they hope to be traveling again this fall.

A growing number of would-be travelers now say they'll likely drive rather than fly to their destination, and they plan to avoid crowded places.

Montana tourism leaders hope that will mean that Montana's wide open spaces might be just what the doctor ordered.

That same survey shows 65 percent of those questioned have canceled a trip or reservations in the past few weeks.

Stuart Doggett, executive director with the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association, said that Montana's hotel and motel industry is already seeing wide-spread layoffs.

Doggett cited the Oxford Study on the Coronavirus Pandemic impact on the hotel industry. That study showed as many as 5,000 direct job losses in Montana's hotel/motel industry. When you add in other jobs supported by lodging, the job losses in Montana increase to more than 14,000.

Across the state, hotel owners report that eight out of 10 rooms are empty on any given night. On the national level, Doggett said the hotel/motel industry is losing as much as $2.4 billion each week.

Representatives from Montana's various travel regions told Tuesday's teleconference that they are beginning to pivot their marketing effort to nearby states, where travelers can jump in their vehicle and drive to their destination.

But even under the best case scenarios, it will likely be this fall before Americans begin to feel comfortable traveling again.

The Destination Analysts survey showed more than 70 percent of those surveyed now feel the coronavirus situation will get worse in the U.S. next month, compared to 67 percent one week ago.

At the same time, those confident that coronavirus will be resolved by the summer travel season has dropped to only 31%.