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Extending Wild Horse hours show visitor spending potential


It is safe to say that the reason we love Montana and choose to live here are the same reasons that 10.5 million people choose to visit our state for a long weekend or their vacation.

While research from the UM's Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research shows that non-residents visiting our state are certainly attracted to our two national parks, many enjoy our open spaces, friendly faces and small towns. Nearly 8 percent of Montana's non-resident visitors are from Canada, with 57 percent coming from Alberta and 13 percent from Saskatchewan.

Debbie Vandeberg

In 2009, visitors spent 2.3 million in Montana communities, which is new money for Montana's economy.

With the current exchange rates between our two countries much improved from years past, the Havre Chamber/Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Havre Tourism Business Improvement District have focused a portion of this year's marketing plan towards our neighbors to the north, based on the significant number of travelers already visiting northern Montana. The goal of the marketing focus was to encourage even more Canadian travelers to visit during the months of May through October, when the extended hours were put in place at the Port of Wild Horse.

A sample survey completed by the ITRR in November of 2008 of visitors to Havre revealed that 40 percent of those surveyed came from Alberta and Saskatchewan. Survey comments noted that they came to Havre to relax for the weekend, explore the area and shop. Of those surveyed, 30 percent entered the U.S. through the Wild Horse port of entry.

"Do the limited hours of operations at the Port of Wild Horse, affect the number of times one may visit our area from Canada?" was one of the questions asked of the surveyed visitors. 36.5 percent replied yes. And, 41.7 percent stated the limited hours of operation affected the length of time they stayed in our community. The historically limited hours of operation at Wild Horse acts as a deterrent to day trips, weekend trips and personal travel coming south into Montana. The economic impact study, completed by the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research on the effect of expanded hours of operation at the Port of Wild Horse, suggests that visitor volume could increase by 30 percent if the port was upgraded to 24-hour status.

While many perhaps don't think of tourism as a big economic driver for Hill County, tourism currently represents a $13 million slice of our economy (ITRR report updated in May). Additionally, the BBER study noted a potential increase of $2.5 million in new money spending — divided between retail sales, accommodations and other categories should the Wild Horse port hours be expanded.

The time is now to permanently expand the hours of operations of the Port of Wild Horse to accommodate tourism traffic from our Canadian neighbors. It makes sense for a brighter economic future for Havre and all of northern Montana.

(Debbie Vandeberg is executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce.)


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