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Most tourists get to Montana in a car — which means gas prices could hurt business

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Gas prices are now about $1.50 a gallon higher than they were last year at this time. That has business owners in places like Montana worried because nearly 90% of last year's visitors to the state came by car. Montana Public Radio's Freddy Monares has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE TURNING OVER)

FREDDY MONARES, BYLINE: It's still a few weeks to peak tourist season in Montana, but a few cars with out-of-state license plates are filling up at this gas station just outside of Missoula.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAS PUMP)

MONARES: Colleen Billman says high gas prices didn't affect her decision to drive her Dodge pickup over from eastern Washington state to visit friends. She says she tries to stay away from gas stations near tourist attractions but sometimes can't help it.

COLLEEN BILLMAN: I have a feeling that's where we got yesterday when we had the national debt (laughter), when we fueled the tank on this beast.

MONARES: Billman says she spent $250 to fill up.

BILLMAN: And it's the most I've ever spent on fueling the tank.

MONARES: Nearby, at Blackfoot River Outfitters, owner John Herzer is feeling the high prices, too.

JOHN HERZER: I have to fill my truck every two or three days, and it's $70 a pop or whatever it is.

MONARES: Herzer guides clients on fly-fishing trips, which means hauling boats to area rivers, feeding his clients lunch and then paying a shuttle service to drive them back to where they started.

HERZER: It starts to hurt. And then you're buying food every day. I mean, all those things just add up to where your bottom line isn't quite what it once was.

MONARES: Herzer says he's had to raise prices 5% from last year to $625 to take two people down the river. At some point, he expects higher prices could impact people's willingness to book fishing trips.

HERZER: The jury's still out. But this year, I still feel like we're solid. But going into 2023, we're going to have to revisit all that stuff.

MONARES: Economist Jeremy Sage tracks tourist spending at the University of Montana. He says high gas prices are only one factor in whether people cancel vacations or spend less when they travel. They can almost ignore them if they're feeling economically stable in general.

JEREMY SAGE: They're not coming to Montana to spend money on gas. They're coming to Montana to have their glacier experience, to have their Yellowstone experience, to have that fishing experience.

MONARES: With many Americans sitting on money they didn't spend during the pandemic, Sage expects tourists to either scale their trips back or inflate their vacation budget and spend more.

SAGE: I think gas prices will dampen it a little bit, but I don't think it's going to create some devastating impact of reduction in travel and expenditures in Montana.

MONARES: A U.S. Travel Association report says nearly 9 in 10 Americans plan to travel this summer, a majority of those by car. About 12 million people visit Montana every year.

Back at the gas station, Colleen Billman says she and her husband cut back on spending before this trip. She says the last time they came to Montana was about a year ago and that they're picky about vacations they take.

BILLMAN: We value our time off, and we'll make that really special.

MONARES: People whose jobs depend on tourist spending are hoping Montana's allure will remain strong enough to keep visitors coming in spite of higher gas prices forecasted for this summer. The more than $3 billion they spend every year keeps a lot of businesses' boats afloat here.

For NPR News, I'm Freddy Monares in Missoula.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.