Tourists worried about fire cancel Glacier National Park trips; bookings down up to 70%

HELENA, Mont. – Hotels and campgrounds in Glacier National Park are flooded with calls from worried tourists cancelling their reservations or asking whether the Montana landmark will stay open as a wildfire sweeps through a popular part of the park.

Hotel owners are trying to talk callers out of changing their plans, while Glacier officials emphasized that only a small part of the 1,718-square-mile park is closed as the flames chew though parched conifer-topped ridges on its eastern side.

The blaze has shut down nearly half of the heavily trafficked Going-to-the-Sun Road, and officials were helping reroute tourists planning to visit attractions along the roadway to other scenic areas, park spokeswoman Denise Germann said.

“I think what we’re offering visitors is a completely different experience throughout the park,” Germann told The Associated Press on Friday. “So many people rely on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, but you and I know there is so much more to Glacier.”

Kelsey Utterback, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student, had planned to stay at the Rising Sun Campground when her family visits from Chicago in two weeks. The site has been evacuated, but they’re still planning to go to Glacier, she said. They’re looking at campgrounds on the park’s western side, far from the blaze.

“Right now, we’re just worried about when the fire will end,” she said. “We don’t really want to go when it’s still out there, but it’s kind of easier for us to change our plans considering we didn’t make any reservations.”

The fire was unchecked as of Friday, though officials said it did not grow from about 6 square miles. Some 300 firefighters dug fire lines, cleared debris and tried to contain its spread near the roadway.

Blazes also are chewing through other drought-stricken areas of the West, threatening homes and forcing evacuations in California and Washington state.

Glacier National Park was having a banner year before the first plume of smoke started rising Tuesday. It is the 10th-most-visited park in the National Park Service system, despite its remote location. Top destinations such as the Great Smoky Mountains and California’s Yosemite National Park enjoy proximity to denser populations.

Visitor numbers from the first part of 2015 showed Glacier was on track to beat last year’s record of 2.3 million tourists. But the main tourist season, measured from the June 19 opening of the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road until its planned closure Sept. 20, is a brief 13 weeks.

Any disruption in that window can hurt the tourism-driven businesses around the park that took in $193 million from visitors last year.

At the centre of it all is the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, which cuts through the park’s stunning alpine peaks. Twenty-one miles of the road is closed, including at Logan Pass on the Continental Divide, where some of the park’s most-hiked trails begin.

Germann said the closures are an opportunity to visit other sites, such as Many Glacier and Two Medicine – scenic areas with campgrounds, lodges and trailheads – or the entire western side.

Many of the cancellations are at hotels and campgrounds in the St. Mary community, where the Going-to-the-Sun Road ends at the park’s eastern boundary. The edge of the fire is a few miles up the road, where it is threatening the Rising Sun Motor Inn and nearby campgrounds.

St. Mary, consisting mostly of lodging, restaurants and other tourism businesses, has not been evacuated, and the people there are trying to persuade visitors to stay – with limited success.

Lester Johnson IV, co-owner of Johnson’s Campground and RV Park, said his business is about half-full after it had been fully booked through September.

“There have been cancellations left and right,” Johnson said. “We are 70 per cent down.”

Those who remain are die-hards who stay at the campground every year or gawkers who travelled there to watch the fire’s progress from a nearby hillside. Meanwhile, Johnson is trying to persuade tourists to check with the campground a week before cancelling their reservations.

Ron Cadrette, general manager of Glacier Park Inc., which operates hotels in and around Glacier, said cancellations have come at the company’s St. Mary Lodge and Resort, an upscale 115-room hotel. Many of those rooms have been rebooked by guests displaced from other hotels and by firefighters who need a place to stay, he said.

But the fire will undoubtedly have a negative effect on business – it’s just a question of how bad it will get, Cadrette said.

“It’s a natural disaster. It will have negative economic impacts,” he said. “How bad those impacts will be depends on the length of time the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed.”


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