New map might attract more visitors to region

Observers say it's hard to gauge whether the Crown of the Continent geotourism map has attracted visitors, but in tough times any publicity helps.

The National Geographic map was released in 2007 and covers from Interstate 90 in Montana north to the Trans-Canada Highway in Alberta and British Columbia.

“Something that has that sort of name recognition (like National Geographic) does help. A lot of people who do come in here mention things like AAA maps,” said Robert Thomson, park naturalist at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park.

The park, south of Great Falls, Mont., is where ancient Indians drove buffalo off cliffs for food and materials. The park is included on the map.

Almost 20,000 people came to the park in 2009, its highest number since 2005 and 2006. Visits those years topped 20,000 thanks to people traveling through the area during the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

“It’s hard to say if the map helped,” Thomson said. “But having some name recognition does help some.”

Halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, the Old Trail Museum sits on the main street of Choteau, Mont. The small museum offers visitors a look at the area’s dinosaur heritage and at early life along the Rocky Mountain Front.

The map touts the importance of the trail, thought by some as the route ancient people from Siberia traveled as they populated North America.

Dana Burns, president of the museum’s board of directors, said the effect of the poor economy last year overcame any benefit derived from the map. Visitation in 2009, less than 2,300 people, was half what it was in 2007 and 2008.

“Did the map help? I don’t know, the economy affected us so much,” he said. “But any publicity or PR you get is going to be a bonus.”

Rhonda Fitzgerald, owner of the Garden Wall Inn in Whitefish, takes a long-term view when it comes to the map. She was involved in its creation, and her business is listed on the accompanying Web site.

“The whole concept of geotourism is very much on target for visitors to our area,” Fitzgerald said.

The same concept applies to her inn, she said.

“It reaches all the touch points of geotourism. It’s historic, local, cultural,” Fitzgerald said. “You get a real taste of Whitefish staying here. It’s a one-stop shop for geotourism.”