Message to Tribes: Museums Work

The Billings Gazette
Thursday, February 26, 2009
By Susan Olp

Gambling doesn't draw tourists to Montana's Indian Country, but museums do.

That's one of the conclusions that came out of a survey conducted by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

The institute, based at the University of Montana, conducted the research at the behest of Montana's Tourism Advisory Council.

"The Tourism Advisory Council felt it was an important one to do," said Christine Oschell, assistant director of the institute based at the University of Montana. "We didn't feel like we had a baseline in regard to Indian Country tourism."

A total of 539 people, residents and nonresidents, who spent at least one night away from home took part in the survey conducted last summer. The institute released the report in December.

Surveyors talked to people in and around all seven reservations in Montana. They used two surveys: the first for the 218 people who visited the reservation and a second one for the other 321 people who traveled near a reservation but chose not to visit it.

Forty percent of people who visited reservations fell into the 55 to 64 age group, followed by 29 percent in the 45-54 age group and 23 percent of people aged 65-74. The vast majority - 45 percent - traveled with just one other person.

The travelers came from nine U.S. states - the most from California and Washington - and one Canadian province. A majority - 64 percent - traveled for a vacation.

Those who drove near reservations but didn't stop came from nine states and one Canadian province. Thirty-seven percent fell into 55-64 age group, with 28 percent ages 65-74 and 26 percent 45-54. Fifty-five percent traveled in pairs, and 52 percent said they were in the state on vacation.

Oschell said among the responses, the one that surprised her most had to do with gambling.

"I think one of the big take-home messages in our state, anyway, is that gambling is not going to draw vacationers to Indian Country," she said. "I think a lot of other states use that as a draw."

Only 18 percent of people who visited a reservation indicated some level of agreement with wanting to gamble on a reservation, and 62 percent strongly disagreed with the idea. Of those who didn't stop at a reservation, only 6 percent indicated that they strongly agreed with the idea of gambling on a Montana reservation, while 49 percent strongly disagreed.

On the other hand, 69 percent of those who visited a reservation were drawn by a museum and 39 percent said a historic landmark attracted them. More than half of the reservation visitors strongly agreed that they would be interested in learning about tribal culture and history.

The location of the reservation seems to also have an impact on visitation. The most-visited reservation - the Blackfeet reservation in northwest Montana - shares its western border with Glacier National Park, which 74 percent of respondents visited on their trip in the state.

The second-most-popular reservation, the Crow Reservation, is within driving distance of Yellowstone National Park, which 39 percent visited, and near the Little Bighorn Battlefield, a stopping point for 24 percent.

If people find reasons to visit reservations, one big barrier keeping them away, said Oschell, is a lack of information.

"People expressed the feeling if they had more information, they might do more and stay more," she said. "So updating Web sites and updating publications - those are all really, really important if we want to grow tourism on reservations. They won't venture into unknown territory very easily."

One thing that might help with that is newly published "Seven Lodges" tourism handbook produced by the Montana Tribal Tourism Alliance (MTTA). The brochure's title is derived from the seven reservations in Montana, said Michael Sweeney, an at-large member of the alliance's board.

The group has been collecting information for the brochure for more than four years, he said. The brochure's colorful cover includes a moccasin representing a tribe on each one of the reservations.

The brochure provides general information about traveling on the reservations, including traveling tips when in Indian Country, enjoying a powwow and buying Indian arts and crafts. Specific information for each reservation includes places to stay and eat, as well as art galleries and gift shops, guided tours, recreational sites, events and contact information.

The MTTA plans to distribute the booklet at the Montana Governor's Conference on Tourism and Recreation in late March, said Latonna Old Elk, president of the group. Eventually, it will also be available at tourism kiosks around the state, she said.

As for the results of the survey, Stan Ozark, chairman of the Tourism Advisory Council said it "opens a lot of doors to further understanding our visitors' perceptions and interests about Montana's reservations."

"Many of us in the state's tourism industry are eager to work with our partners in Montana's Indian Country to further develop this important segment of our tourism economy," Ozark said.

He praised the development of the "Seven Lodges" tribal tourism handbook, calling it an excellent step toward making visitors aware of opportunities available in Indian Country.