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District tourism focuses on new attractions

From cowboys to history buffs, Ninth District states are putting their best packages forward to lure adventure seekers

May 1, 2002


District tourism focuses on new attractions

Spring is in the air, and many vacationers have already set their summer travel plans. Even the best travel industry gurus have difficulty predicting "the next big thing" in tourism. But growth in some niche areas and insights from tourism experts may provide clues regarding where district tourism is headed.

District states appear to be echoing some of the same trends: an increase in ecotourism, such as camping or other outdoor wildlife adventures; developing cultural and heritage tourism programs, including stays at a historic fort or on an Indian Reservation; or farm entertainment tourism, which offers hands-on experiences.


Agricultural tourism has already gained a foothold in some district states. There are more than 200 farms in the state involved in ag entertainment tourism, according to the Minnesota Grown Directory. That's small potatoes compared to Montana's 1,100 ag tourism operations, according to a 1997 survey by Montana Agricultural Statistics. The Dakotas have little data on farm entertainment venues, but tourism departments in each state have plans to study the industry to help it prosper.

The driver behind the growth in farm tourism appears rooted in a broader desire of people to be outside and communing with nature in some way. Assessing tourism opportunities for farmers in the state, a recent report by the University of Minnesota Agricultural Tourist Services evaluated leisure time and travel interests of state residents and found outdoor activities were the most popular, followed by sports, cultural and animal-related activities.

Farmers are getting into the tourism business for different reasons, said Kent Gustafson, an extension educator at the University of Minnesota Tourism Center. Some are involved in tourism to supplement their income; others are interested in educating the public and introducing people to farming, he said. The industry in Minnesota is still in its infancy—"a niche industry, marketed by word of mouth," Gustafson said—and scattered throughout the state.

One of the pioneers in this field is This Old Farm in Brainerd, Minn., opened by Dick Rademacher 23 years ago to showcase his farm collectables. This Old Farm has since expanded to include an entire old-fashioned town complete with a general store, sweet shop and saloon. The 35-acre museum opens its 35 buildings Memorial Day weekend.

Last year, the operation expanded to sell neighboring farmers' beef and pork products at its weekly seasonal market. Alan Jabs, a neighbor and member of the Nokay Lake Agriculture Association, developed a giant corn maze that attracted more than 5,000 people. The operation hopes that new events, including Special Olympics, along with plans to extend the farm's gardens and build a new market cafe and theater, will push this year's attendance over 15,000.

Ranchers like John Hanson in Bowman, ND, need to find ways to attract visitors in order to stay financially afloat. "The ranch just can't do it anymore," said Hanson, who raises bison, quarter horses and beef cattle while running Hanson's Logging Camp Ranch. "Commodity ag in any region is no longer able to be the sole provider for the community. There aren't as many people on the land. Rural communities are starting to whither away. That requires a different approach to make changes to make the economy work," Hanson said.

In 1995, the ranch earned $2,000 gross revenue from various tourism ventures. Today it grosses $80,000 in revenue from about 1,500 visitors per year. Hanson's ranch hosts horseback riders, bison hunters, photography workshops and educational classes in calf management and the ecosystem, all taught by area instructors. "In 10 years city slickers may not want the horse riding experience, but education is something that's always going to continue," Hanson said. Although the ranch is a little behind in bookings from last year, Hanson expects a great summer.

A bit o' culture

All district tourism departments have cultural tourism projects in the works, whether emerging or expanding. Montana is focused on three different cultural tourism corridors within the state, said Victor Bjornberg, tourism development and education coordinator for Travel Montana.

The Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula, is developing a Lewis and Clark corridor, along with promoting its local artists and theater groups. Great Falls, Fort Benton and Havre make up the second corridor and are creating an array of attractions, some focused on Lewis and Clark. The third corridor consists of the historic mining areas of Deer Lodge and Butte, where heritage attractions are the focal point.

R.J. Young, president of the Montana Tribal Alliance, is involved in promoting tourism for seven state tribes. "We've been working closely with Lewis and Clark [bicentennial] planners because so many reservations have a bit of history with that." Young says tribes are offering encampments, traditional storytelling, horseback riding, games and signature events. The big push behind developing a cultural tourism program among the tribes is economic development and the education of the tribal youth. "We're still fairly new, and we don't know how well we'll do, but we're willing to stick with it," Young said.

Back to nature

Catering to people's desire for outdoors experiences is also a growing trend in the district.

At the northern tip of Wisconsin along Lake Superior, Bayfield draws visitors from Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago. It has no water slides, malls or splashy entertainment venues and draws primarily couples and empty nesters, along with a few outdoor-minded families.

"As we went into fall our [tourism] didn't drop, it continued to grow," said Carol De Mars, executive director, Bayfield Area Chamber of Commerce. "I predict we'll exceed last year's numbers by quite a bit, based on inquiries," said De Mars.

For the past five years camping has grown, she said. Campsites are filled in July and August—there are 190 campsites within Bayfield Township and 57 more on the Apostle Islands. "I'm not sure if that trend is because of family values or because of the demographics we've been targeting. Camping may have increased because of economics. You can vacation longer without spending money on lodging and food. Most sites are on Lake Superior, which has the water element people are looking for," De Mars said.

For the past two years camping has become more popular in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (UP) as well, and many summer resorts report an increase in bookings. With a history of mining in the UP, copper mining tours like those at Keweenaw National Historic Park in Calumet are particularly popular and growing the fastest.

Between 1998 and 2000, visits to Marquette County grew by 13 percent, and tourism spending increased to $85 million. Dog sledding, which has become a big hit in the UP in the past five years, contributed to the boost, and a handful of outfitters have sprung up as a result of the sport's growing popularity. Marquette hosts the UP200 in February, a dog-sledding race that draws participants and fans nationally.

A locale growing in popularity with its highflying attractions is Wabasha, Minn., home to 20 pairs of nesting eagles and declared by Congress as the National Eagle Center. From November through March, during migration, 100 to 200 eagles can be spotted between Lake City and Wabasha. The center has seen a big increase in tourist traffic since its opening in July 2000, with 15,000 visitors in 2001—one-third more than in 2000. It attracts most of its visitors from the Twin Cities, Rochester, Minn., and Chicago, but last year guests came from 50 states and 49 countries.

Road trip, anyone?

According to a recent Kiplinger study, a surprisingly robust summer travel season is taking shape for the United States, and pent-up demand is a big reason. But whether that is the case for district states remains to be seen. The study said Americans who postponed bookings and canceled trips because of Sept. 11 or the economy are itching to go. Despite firmer prices, the study predicted a return to longer vacations, one week vs. only a few days. Additionally, it said more U.S. vacationers will drive, sticking closer to home, which is what district tourism departments are hoping for.

North Dakota's tourism director predicts the 2002 summer tourism season will be higher than 2001 because of their new ad campaign, new activities—such as the 97-mile Maah Daah Hey bike and horse trail in the Badlands—and people traveling closer to home.

In the UP, "normally I'd guess we'd be up 4 [percent] to 5 percent this summer, but because of Sept. 11, I don't know. With the economy in the tank and layoffs ... if I came out of this summer with the same numbers as last year I'd be happy," said Tom Nemacheck, executive director, Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association. "Normally, we don't spend all our marketing money, but his year we're going down to the nubs. We're not holding any in reserve."

Travelers spent $11.38 billion in Wisconsin during 2001, representing a 3 percent increase over the revised 2000 expenditure. Although state tourism grew last year, some areas are still struggling. La Crosse has suffered from a lack of tourists since last fall. Tom Tourville, executive director, La Crosse Visitor's Bureau said, "The trend has been just trying to survive. We've had a bad winter, flooding last fall and the aftermath of Sept. 11. Many people are just trying to figure out how to balance tourism and get the wagon back on the trail."

They're "cautiously optimistic," in Big Sky country, said Mary Boyle, publicity coordinator for the Montana Department of Commerce, regarding the summer tourism season. The state is looking at a 1 percent to 2 percent increase from 2001, in which they had 9.5 million visitors (nonresidents), who brought about $1.66 billion into Montana—a little above what they saw in 2000.

South Dakota is looking to bounce back from a poor 2001, when visitor spending dropped 3.7 percent. "2001 was the worst year we've had in a long time,"said Patti Van Gerpen, cabinet secretary for the state's tourism department. Even Mount Rushmore was down 2 percent in visitation last year until Sept. 11. Afterward, the park saw a jump in patriotic visits, breaking monthly visitation records from October to January that helped the attraction finish the year with a 2 percent increase, which is "pretty significant," Van Gerpen said. Visitor inquiries are also up 3.5 percent over last year.

"We work with tour groups, and since Sept. 11 many tour companies have come up with new tours—forgoing Washington, D.C., and New York and coming to Mount Rushmore," said Van Gerpen. "We seem to be benefiting from displaced tours."