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All those transplants living in Idaho? Visits from their friends and family are big for tourism

December 21, 2018
Mountain bikers on the Ridge to Rivers trail system in the Boise foothills.

BOISE — As transplants from Idaho’s neighbors continue to flood the state, the friends and family they left behind are driving Idaho’s growing tourism industry.

Tourism, Idaho’s third-largest industry behind agriculture and technology, grew by 11 percent in 2018. In 2017, Idaho businesses made $3.7 billion in direct travel dollars, according to data collected by the Idaho Department of Commerce. They recorded 34.3 million Idaho trips in 2017, 40 percent overnight and 60 percent just visiting Idaho for the day. More than 70 percent of Idaho travelers in 2017 were from outside the state, the department estimates.

Despite the national attention terrifying Idahoans who want their favorite spots to stay secret, most tourists come from Idaho’s neighbors. Washington and Utah sent the highest percentage of visitors in 2017, 12 percent each, followed by Oregon and California at 8 percent each.

Idaho Commerce spokesman Matt Borud said that’s because times like the current holiday season draw in the majority of Idaho’s visitors. In 2017, 49 percent of surveyed Idaho visitors said they came to spend time with friends and family.

“This is an interesting time of year because the vast majority of travelers visit friends and family,” Borud said. “Idaho isn’t unique in that regard.”

Although neighboring states like Utah, Wyoming, Oregon or Montana contain high-profile national parks, Idaho’s tourism industry keeps up comparatively well. For example, 12.5 million non-residents visited Montana in 2017 and spent $3.36 billion while Wyoming hosted 8.7 million visitors who spent more than $3 billion, too. In all, 19.3 million residents and out-of-state visitors traveled in Utah — mostly to its five national parks — and spent $9.15 billion. In Oregon, 28.8 million overnight visitors there spent $11.8 billion.

Those who aren’t visiting loved ones are most likely to be hiking, skiing, camping or visiting the state’s landmarks — about 11 percent of visitors fell into that category last year.

The outdoors is also what draws most of Idaho’s estimated 6 to 8 percent international tourists, most from the United Kingdom and Germany. These international travelers come mainly to enjoy the state’s scenery and public lands, Borud said, but they also tend to spend three weeks in the region, touring through several states to experience the American West.

Places like Boise and Sun Valley are some of the biggest draws, while out-of-state visitors on multistate tours are likely to try to hit Craters of the Moon or Stanley on their way to Yellowstone or other national landmarks. Borud said Idaho tourism’s marketing budget is small, so they focus on digital campaigns, targeting mostly women planning their family vacations.

“We typically focus on the family travelers,” Borud said. “What do you want to do this winter or summer with your kids? Is this the summer you finally take your kids on that whitewater rafting campaign?”

Sun Valley’s summer recreation and winter ski season still attract significant numbers of visitors from across the country, some whose families have been visiting resorts in the area for decades. According to data collected by Visit Sun Valley, the highest percentage of visitors to the Sun Valley area during either the winter or summer season were from Los Angeles, followed by Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Portland. Five percent of visitors came from outside the United States — also mostly from the United Kingdom or Germany — and both national and international visitors tend to stay 7.5 days in the summer and 4.7 days in the winter.

With so many beautiful Idaho vistas to choose from, Borud said working on Facebook and Instagram for digital campaigns is easy.

“Idaho has such gorgeous scenery, and those big scenic panoramic photos do so well on Instagram — and we have those in spades,” Borud said. “We have a state that is very ‘Instagrammable,’ and we have definitely pushed that.”

More Idahoans exploring their state

Idaho Commerce’s tourism development team has been spending more time on in-state marketing in the last few years, Borud said, and it’s paying off. A visitor from the Treasure Valley, for example, can have a bigger economic impact in the long run on rural communities that rely on tourism. If they have a good experience, they’re more like to return compared to someone from out of state.

Pretty much “anything with water” is popular, Borud said, whether whitewater rafting in Riggins and Hells Canyon or world-class fishing in Victor and Driggs, in Idaho’s Yellowstone corridor. Borud said among the most visited pages on their website is Ponderosa State Park and Payette Lake in McCall.

Even the Sun Valley area, one of Idaho’s largest out-of-state tourism drivers, saw a bump in visitors from within the state, particularly from Boise and Twin Falls. The vast majority of Sun Valley’s visitors came from Idaho and the surrounding states of California, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Twenty-two percent alone came from within Idaho.

Scott Fortner, executive director of Visit Sun Valley, said they’ve seen more visitors in fall 2018 from the Boise area or elsewhere. That’s a trend continuing from last fall, Fortner said, and largely driven Boise’s growth and the number of people moving to Idaho.

“(They’re) people who are new to the state and excited to go and visit and investigate,” Fortner said.

The messaging is the same, Borud said, whether Idaho Tourism is marketing unique Idaho experiences to people in Ogden, Utah, Los Angeles, Tacoma, Washington, or new Treasure Valley residents.

“We want you to take that time off, we think that Idaho is the best place to do that,” he said, “and we are going to give you the tools and inspiration to make that happen.”

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