Even before the pandemic put outdoor destinations like Whitefish on the map in 2020 — fueling unprecedented visitation to the picturesque lake and ski town at the top of the Flathead Valley — the community was already looking at ways to manage its growing popularity. In 2017, community stakeholders came together to craft a tourism management plan that would look at how the town of about 7,700 could better handle the influx of visitors.

Now, five years after that plan was drafted and three years after it was adopted by the city council, the community is looking to revise it and is seeking input from residents. This summer, the Whitefish Sustainable Tourism Management Plan Committee began taking comments from part-time and full-time residents, plus people who have a stake in the community, like workers or business owners who live out of town. The comment period was originally supposed to end this month, but it was extended to Oct. 15 to get those who might have been distracted during the final days of summer, said committee chair Brian Schott.

“This is a chance to regroup and see what issues we might need to readdress,” he said in an interview with Montana Free Press. 

Perhaps the most visible result of the tourism plan was the Be A Friend of The Fish campaign spearheaded by Explore Whitefish, the town’s visitors and convention bureau. The campaign, which took off at the beginning of the pandemic, urges visitors to recreate responsibly (pick up trash, be patient when trailheads are crowded), support local businesses and be respectful and kind (the latter being particularly important during the masking era of the pandemic). But there were other aspects of the management plan, as well, such as encouraging local officials to address the area’s lack of worker housing or public transportation. 

Since the plan came out, the city has taken some steps to address the ongoing housing crisis, including trying to establish a workforce housing assistance program. Kate McMahon, the person tasked with revising the tourism management plan, said that means the new version might put more emphasis on issues that haven’t been more directly addressed, like tourism and wildfire preparedness. It all depends on what the community tells the committee during the comment period, she said. 


Is Montana’s pandemic tourism boom over?

While the state remains a popular tourist destination — especially places like Glacier and Yellowstone national parks — advance hotel reservations are slightly down this year in destinations like the Flathead Valley. Officials attribute that to a number of factors, including rising costs and the end of the COVID-19 emergency, which means people have more travel options than they did just a few summers ago.

As of late last week, nearly 700 comments had been submitted to the website, www.sustainablewhitefish.com. Schott said he was hopeful the committee would receive about 1,000 comments when it was all said and done. A revised version of the plan is expected to be released later this year or early next. 

During the pandemic, visitation to Montana and Whitefish in particular exploded, but now it appears to have flattened just as tourism officials expected earlier this year, said Explore Whitefish Executive Director Julie Mullins. According to the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism & Recreation Research, just over 1 million people were coming to Whitefish every year before the pandemic. That jumped to 1.4 million in 2020 and 1.2 million in 2021, but since then has dropped. In 2022, Whitefish welcomed 934,000 visitors and this year it has received about 491,000 people so far. 

“Everyone loves Whitefish and we just want to make sure it isn’t loved to death because we have a special community.”

Brian Schott, chair of Whitefish Sustainable Tourism Management Plan Committee

Mullins said that type of drop should be expected following the dramatic visitation increases in 2020 and 2021. She noted, though, that the decrease doesn’t mean that Whitefish should relax when it comes to managing visitation. For one, while visitation might be down to pre-pandemic levels, the town’s population has grown substantially to nearly 9,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means more people at local restaurants and trailheads, Schott said. But he was confident the community would come together to find ways to handle the challenges that come with more people.

“Everyone loves Whitefish and we just want to make sure it isn’t loved to death because we have a special community,” he said. “And this planning process is a great example of the community coming together to ensure that it does remain a special place.”

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.