By Tim Leeds
More than 100,000 tourists passed through Havre last year, and with events in the works to make that number increase, some people are getting poised to take advantage of it.
"It is a business. It is a part of economic development," said Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce.
Vandeberg attended the Governor's Conference on Tourism and Recreation April 18 and 19, where information presented showed the impact tourism has on the state, and on Havre, she said.
The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana in Missoula said more than 9.5 million nonresident people visited Montana last year, and spent more than $1.7 billion.
The numbers become a little more real when applied locally, Vandeberg said. Havre is in the Russell Country tourist region of Montana. Nine percent of Montana's tourists, about 850,000 people, stayed in Russell Country. Of that number, 12 percent, or nearly 103,000 people, stayed in Havre.
And the number of tourists, in light of both the Lewis and Clark bicentennial and the Sept. 11 hijackings, is likely to increase, although predictions on how much vary widely.
"Whether it rockets up or gradually increases, nobody knows," Vandeberg said. "I believe we will see an impact in our community."
Some local motels say they don't see an incredible jump in business, but there definitely is an increase.
Lorna Bjerga of the Circle Inn east of Havre said tourists do provide a significant amount of business.
"I would say, in the summertime, between June and Labor Day we get about a 50 percent increase," she said.
Most just stay a night while on their way to a destination, although some stay for a few days or even a week. And the destinations vary widely, both to the east and to the west, Bjerga said.
"I've had them go everywhere, some heading to (Washington) D.C., some to Glacier (National Park), some to the coast," she said. "I've had several calls already for reservations for people coming from Alaska and heading east," she said.
Jan Bachini of the Siesta Motel in Havre said she does expect to see a major increase.
"I just think for the hotels of Havre this is going to be a heck of a year," she said. "And tourism benefits the whole town of Havre."
And many people end up staying more than one day, she added. Many do just stop for the night and leave, on a variety of destinations, but most customers today are stayovers, Bachini said.
And, she said, they seem to be enjoying their stay in Havre. Some bicyclers planning to just stay the night got stranded in Havre when the snow hit, Bachini said. They left a note telling her they stayed and saw everything Havre had to offer, and enjoyed the opportunity.
Peter Yesawich, president and CEO of the national travel marketing firm Yesawich, Pepperdine and Brown, was the keynote speaker at the governor's conference.
Vandeberg said Yesawich showed research predicting more people will stay in the United States this year and will avoid taking boats or airlines to foreign vacation spots.
"It doesn't mean people won't go, but many will shift to their backyard, so to speak," Vandeberg said.
Yesawich cited a survey in which 77 percent of the respondents said they want to go somewhere they've never been, somewhere with wide open spaces and no crowds, and somewhere close to home, Vandeberg said.
"They're wanting to experience real and authentic things," she said. "They're wanting to slow down their pace.
"I think these trends were emerging. The tragedy of 9-11 put these trends in faster motion."
The way for Havre to capitalize on the increasing tourist trade is to be actively involved, Vandeberg said. All area residents need to know what the area has to offer and to be ambassadors to the tourists. Courteous, knowledgeable people help attract and keep tourists, she said.
"We all want a memory to remember a trip by. We all can be part of creating that memory," she said.
To tap into the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, the Chamber is erecting a billboard near Fort Benton, placing brochures in visitor areas, and working in partnership with Fort Benton and Great Falls to attract tourists to the Hi-Line.
The Old Forts Trail promotion, linking Havre to Fort Benton and Fort Walsh in Saskatchewan, Canada, is already in place.
Another key area for Havre to take advantage of is the Internet, Vandeberg said.
A search on the Google search engine with the words "vacation" and "Montana" returned about 280,000 hits. Of those hits, almost 2,300 contained "Havre."
The Chamber's Web site includes a brief history and description of the area, and a section describing local attractions. Other sites, including the Montana State University-Northern and Travel Montana sites, include information about area attractions.
Scott Strobel, who administers the Chamber site, said it has averaged about 600 hits a month.
Vandeberg said she gets many phone calls asking for information about the city every month that result from visits to the Chamber Web site. Part of the advantage to Internet vacation planning is that tourists are looking for more than just tourist attractions, she said. They also want to know where they can eat, where they can shop, and what they can see and do besides visiting tourist sites. A tourist might be thrilled to go see a ball game at the Sixth Avenue ballpark while they're on vacation, she said.
In order for the Web site to provide that kind of information, more businesses have to involved, Vandeberg said. For instance, only one of Havre's banks is on the Web site and a recent caller asked if the city only had one bank.
Strobel said there is a $60-a-year charge to get on the Web site. The listing can include links to a business's own site as well as a description of the business.
To help local people know what tourist attractions there are in the area, the Chamber's tourism committee organized free tours of three areas: Wahkpa Chu'gn bison kill site, Havre Beneath the Streets and the Railroad Museum, and Fort Assinniboine.
Shauna Albrecht, cochair of the tourism committee, said they are offering the tours to people "to make them aware of what we actually have, and to give them an opportunity to go see what we have."
The idea is for local residents and business employees to go on the tours so they can refer tourists to the attractions.
"We all should be aware of the treasures we have in our own back yard," she said.
A tour of Havre Beneath the Streets is scheduled for 11 a.m. to noon Friday and noon to 1 p.m. Saturday. A tour of Wahkpa Chu'gn is scheduled for noon to 1 p.m. Friday and 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday. People should call 265-7258 to schedule tours of Fort Assinniboine Friday and Saturday.