By Tim Leeds
Several efforts to promote tourism in ways that will benefit Havre and the Hi-Line are gaining momentum.
And local tourism officials say the focus is overdue and well-deserved.
"People come out (to Fort Assinniboine) and say, 'You have so much stuff here - I didn't know!' We get that a lot," said Gary Wilson, president of the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association and chair of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee.
The initiatives include:
expansion of the Old Forts Trail, which follows the trading route that extended from Fort Benton into Canada in the 1800s;
creation of Montana's Dinosaur Trail, which will feature 13 sites in communities including Havre and Malta;
expansion of Hands of Harvest, which promotes cultural tourism in north-central Montana;
promotion of Havre by sending information packets to nearly 100 tour bus companies in the United States and Canada. The Havre chamber is heading that effort and also planning to hold a summit to educate business owners about how to promote tourism and benefit in the process.
The Old Forts Trail includes Fort Benton, Fort Assinniboine and forts Walsh and Battleford in Canada. State Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, is sponsoring a bill in the 2005 Legislature to add the forts on the Whoop Up Trail to the Old Forts Trail. That would add forts Conrad, Lethbridge, Calgary and Hamilton, known as Fort Whoop Up, to the list, giving the Old Forts Trail a western route and also connecting it to the international airport in Calgary.
"It will expand the marketing tremendously," Wilson said. "Both ends will benefit."
Anne Boothe, executive director of PhilCo Economic Growth Council in Malta, said the efforts to promote tourism are starting to cross community, regional and organizational lines.
Montana's Dinosaur Trail is a cooperative effort of the state Department of Commerce, Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the federal Bureau of Land Management, PhilCo and the Custer Country, Missouri River Country, Yellowstone Country and Russell Country tourism regions.
"This is the first project four tourism regions have worked on together," Boothe added.
She said part of the idea of the trail is to promote more than just dinosaur exhibits. The underlying idea is to make sure each region is promoting the other regions as well as itself.
"The whole goal of the project is to try to coordinate some tourism," she said. "It's more than dinosaurs."
The brochures for Montana's Dinosaur Trail are scheduled to be released in May, in conjunction with the opening of the Fort Peck Dam Interpretive Center and Museum, one of the featured sites on the trail. Boothe said the groups plan to print 100,000 to 150,000 brochures in the first offering, and organizations and local governments will have links to a special Web site about the trail.
Gayle Fisher, executive director of Russell Country, said local groups in Montana are increasing efforts to promote their area's attractions. That supplements the work the nonprofit regional tourism organizations, like Russell Country, and the state Department of Commerce do for regional and state promotions, she said.
"I think we are gradually getting more grass-roots promotion," Fisher said. "It's like a three-legged stool missing a leg if we don't have that local effort."
She said efforts like the Dinosaur Trail and Hands of Harvest show great promise for bringing tourists to the region and to other attractions in the communities.
"Those things are coming to fruition. It always seems to take longer than expected, and costs more than expected," she said.
Former Havreite Vicki Warp, who works at the University of Montana in Missoula and is one of the organizers of Hands of Harvest, said that effort is poised to expand.
Businesses in central Montana communities including Lewistown, Stanford and Harlowton - one of the featured sites on the Dinosaur Trail is in Harlowton - are looking to join Hands of Harvest, which would add a sixth loop, and other businesses on the first five loops are looking to join, she said.
Hands of Harvest promotes almost 100 north-central Montana businesses on five trails in an 80-page guidebook. The program is modeled after the Handmade in America program started in North Carolina in 1993.
Cultural tourism focuses on attractions unique to an area. It features businesses that display an area's culture, like artist's studios; shops and galleries featuring local crafts; events like craft fairs, powwows, rodeos and cowboy poetry readings; and lodging with a local feel like bed and breakfasts, farms and ranches that offer rooms to tourists, hunting and fishing camps, and historic hotels. The intent of cultural tourism is to market local businesses that would be interesting to tourists, rather than major tourist attractions like national parks.
Warp added that Hands of Harvest is looking at adding other products to sell to tourists besides the guidebook, like guided tours of groups of businesses on the trails.
Fisher said Montana's Dinosaur Trail and Hands of Harvest could be very effective marketing tools. Offering people trails and scenic routes often brings people to an area, even if they aren't traveling specifically to see the featured items on the trail, she said.
Once people are on the Dinosaur Trail, well-promoted attractions and activities could help them decide where to go on the trail, she said.
If attractions are promoted better, it's more likely tourists - and their money - will stay longer.
"The more you have to offer, the better your chance is to get that potential customer to stay and be a customer," Fisher said.
Havre chamber executive director Debbie Vandeberg said the local tourism summit, tentatively planned for April, will give local businesses the opportunity to learn what events tourist attractions are planning for the summer and what other activities will be held, such as plays planned by Montana Actors' Theatre. The businesses will then be able to direct tourists to special activities as well as major tourist attractions.
The packets sent out to tour companies in the United States and Canada offer a package price to tour Fort Assinniboine, the Wahkpa Chu'gn bison kill site behind the Holiday Village Shopping Center, and Havre Beneath the Streets.
The packets also promote regional sites like Bear Paw Battlefield south of Chinook, and includes a brochure listing attractions and activities in the area, including the Rocky Boy powwow, and information on local hotels, restaurants and businesses.
Vandeberg said the chamber actively works with businesses to promote tourism, and works with other communities like Fort Benton, Chinook and Malta to promote each other's attractions.
"We don't just promote Havre. We promote the area," Vandeberg said.