GREAT FALLS (AP)
Montana tourism officials say they learned something about the economics of high gasoline prices last summer: People cut back on travel plans when gasoline prices reach $4 a gallon. Preliminary figures show that the number of visitors to Montana fell 3.7 percent in 2008. Although gas prices since then have dropped considerably, a further decline of around 2 percent is expected this year because of the recession. Norma Nickerson, director of Montana's Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, blamed high gasoline prices for last year's decrease. "Once gasoline prices get to around $4 a gallon, people will cut back," she said. The average price of a gallon of regular gas in Montana set a record at $4.11 last July. Nationwide, high gasoline prices coincided with a 5 percent decrease in gasoline use. "We all felt the crunch," said Robert Dompier, general manager of the Holiday Inn in Great Falls. "I don't think people necessarily cut out travel, but I do think they are making shorter trips." Russell Country is the arm of the state tourism department that markets central Montana to visitors. The director of the division, Gayle Fisher, said the goal now is marketing to the region's neighbors in the Dakotas, western Montana and Canada. “We're marketing a little closer in this year," Fisher said. She said Russell Country is focusing on niche visitors, such as bird watchers and trout fishermen. "We need to work to reach people with information about the activities that are near and dear to them that are available in our area," she said. ___ Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com.