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Published April 05, 2010, 11:09 AM

Upbeat regional tourism outlook for 2010

The regional outlook for the 2010 tourism season looks to be improved in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, three states that fared better than the rest of the nation last year.

By: Sarah McCurdy, Prairie Business Magazine

As the recession starts to fade and the recovery begins, the national tourism industry is looking forward to a stronger year after taking its lumps last year.

Twenty percent of the 2,200 travelers questioned by D.K. Shifflet & Associates in a recent survey said they are planning more leisure trips in the first half of 2010 compared with last year.

The regional outlook for the 2010 tourism season also looks to be improved in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, three states that fared better than the rest of the nation last year.

As travelers continue to look closer to home for affordable family vacations, regional tourism officials believe they are well positioned to take advantage of the trend towards more low-cost vacations.

“The economic situation is going to continue to shape travel decisions,” says Sara Otte Coleman, the director of North Dakota Tourism, a division of the state department of commerce. “People are looking for deals. Packages that allow for easy planning will continue to be important. People will look for destinations closer to home, including wholesome travel like state and national parks.”

FAIRLY POSITIVE OUTLOOK IN MINNESOTA

Tourism is a $11.2 billion business in Minnesota, with the leisure and hospitality industry employing more than 245,000 Minnesotans.

“The tourism industry as a whole is more optimistic than it has been in some time,” says John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism, the state’s tourism office. “Last year was a very different year for many states, including Minnesota.”

Edman says as a whole Minnesota’s tourism industry performed better than most states across the country in 2009.

He says that Explore Minnesota Tourism saw signs last year that people still wanted to get away despite the recession, but observed that they traveled differently. Tourists didn’t travel as far on vacations, stuck closer to home, were more price conscious and looked for value. Edman expects the “conscious travel” trend that started last year to continue into the 2010 travel season.

There is also hope that 2010 will be stronger year for tourism in Minnesota than last year.

“We are seeing that people are becoming more confident in the economy and they realize they need to get away,” Edman says.

While spending may remain on the cautious side, Edman expects many will rediscover areas and pastimes closer to home such as fishing, biking and hiking.

Different parts of Minnesota experienced differing travel numbers in 2009. The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area was affected by a downturn in business travel, while some segments and areas outside the Twin Cities metro held their own and even performed better last year than in recent years. Edman says business travel in the Twin Cities area has been increasing in 2010 and the trend is expected to continue in both the business and leisure segments.

“Our forecast for the year is people are going to take their vacations,” Edman says. “They just need that reminder.”

NORTH DAKOTA TOURISM ON THE RISE

North Dakota is outpacing the rest of the nation in tourism growth. In a study conducted by IHS Global Insight between 2006 and 2008, North Dakota’s core tourism grew by 10.7 percent, compared to national growth of 8.1 percent during the same period.

Canadian travel to North Dakota also increased by 32.1 percent during the same timeframe in another study, yielding 1.5 million trips from 2006 to 2008. Every county in North Dakota saw tourism growth and 46 counties experienced double-digit growth between 2006 and 2008, according to the survey.

Otte Coleman says North Dakota’s status as an affordable, close-to-home destination has made the state an attractive tourist destination given the current economic climate.

“It’s really what’s in style right now and we fare well with that,” she says.

The state had increases in state park visitation, business and leisure travel and hotel profitability in 2009. North Dakota was also the only state in the nation to post an increase in revenue per available room in 2009 compared with 2008.

National park attendance increased by 19 percent in 2009 and Otte Coleman says she expects tourists will continue to look for ways to get back to nature this year.

Family travel continues to be important, but Otte Coleman says the dynamic is changing. She says more people are now traveling with extended family members.

Otte Coleman says the tourism department’s marketing strategy, which has focused most of its efforts regionally throughout the last decade, has made the most out of its limited budget.

“We get the message out into the markets where we know we can make an impact,” she says.

VISITOR NUMBERS UP IN SOUTH DAKOTA

South Dakota had a record number of visitors last year, according to an IHS Global Insight study. The state experienced a 1.2 percent increase in visitors in 2009, despite a national 7 percent drop in tourism last year.

Tourism taxable sales have also held steady so far this year in South Dakota.

Custer State Park reached a record 1.8 million visitors in 2009 and reservations are running 20 percent ahead on nights reserved for this summer compared to the same time last year. Nights in parks statewide are also running ahead of last year with visitors booking longer stays.

“I think what we’re seeing is people who were maybe being cautious before are tired of it now,” says Melissa Bump, director of the South Dakota Office of Tourism. “They want to get out and they can do it economically in South Dakota.”

South Dakota also saw a sizeable jump in the number of visits to the state’s tourism website from residents of nearby states Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa and Nebraska in the last year.

Bump credits South Dakota’s tourism success with a continued, consistent advertising message delivered throughout the recession. She says the state’s many educational and historic places, including its national and states parks, are a great draw for families.

“Our state is very affordable, which encourages those who may be working off a tighter budget to consider us for a vacation,” Bump says.

Bump says there are too many external factors to make concrete statements regarding trends in the upcoming tourism season. But she says South Dakota is an affordable destination, which is what travelers are looking for right now. “South Dakota can give travelers more value for their dollar,” she says.

When their vacations are over, she wants visitors to leave knowing there is more to see and do in the state.

“Come for a week if you can,” Bump says. “It’s a large state and there are things to do in all corners of the state. If they didn’t book their trip long enough, we will welcome them back.”

McCurdy is a Fargo-based freelancer writer. She can be reached at sarah@sarahmccurdy.net.

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