Expanding tourism just the ticket in Ninth District

Peter Phillips | The Blake School, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Published October 1, 2000  | October 2000 issue

While some natural resource industries struggle in parts of the district, the natural environment lures increasing numbers of tourists.

Mindful of tourism trends, the 114-mile Mickelson Trail, which winds north-south between Deadwood and Edgemont in the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, opened two years ago to meet the growing interest of both travelers and locals to participate in outdoor activities.

Evidence of tourism growth can be seen throughout the Ninth District. In Montana, total visits to the state climbed by almost 2 million—or about one-quarter—to about 10 million from 1991 to 1999. According to the Minnesota Department of Tourism, tourist trips in the state increased from 19.3 million in 1994 to more than 21 million in 1999.

Although exact numbers were not available, South Dakota has seen a steady growth in visitation numbers for the state as a whole, according to the state's Department of Tourism.

In some cases, the growth stems from the popularity of existing attractions. Visits to Custer State Park, S.D., hit more than 1.8 million last year, a 20 percent increase since 1992. Tourists to the Northwoods region of Wisconsin have increased by more than 50 percent from 1993 to 1999. North Dakota has seen a steady increase in the sales of fishing licenses over the last few years, according to that state's Department of Tourism. In Minnesota, tourists continue to flock to state parks, reaching 8.6 million visits in 1998, or about 15 percent more than in 1992.

But in some cases, the old standby attractions have hit a plateau. For example, visits to Mt. Rushmore—South Dakota's largest tourist attraction—have grown by less than 3 percent since 1992, although it still draws more than 2.6 million tourists a year. While visits to Montana's Yellowstone National Park have grown each of the last four years, 1999 attendance is virtually identical to 1992, according to figures from the Montana Bureau of Tourism. Glacier National Park continues to be "a major draw to the state," according to one source, but visits have dropped steadily since 1994.

Where tourism is increasing, it appears to be due to new attractions that cater to changing interests of tourists. Mary Stadick of the South Dakota Department of Tourism said tourists have begun to "go to places off the beaten path to get a more authentic experience."

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, according to Tom Nemachek, the executive director of the U.P. Travel and Recreation Association, there has been a "growth in particular activities rather than particular attractions." Most of these activities take place outdoors and include sea kayaking and hiking, he said.

In North Dakota, a new form of tourism called "ecotourism" has evolved. Ecotourists are interested in self-adventure and experiential, active vacations, which may range from biking, hiking and canoeing to bird watching. Popular ecotourist spots in North Dakota include the newly created Maah Dah Hay Trail, which is a source of growing activity, according to officials with the state Department of Tourism. Also, the Lewis and Clark Trail is a popular spot in North Dakota for outdoor recreation. In 1999, visits to the Knife River Villages, which sit along the trail, increased 40 percent over 1998.

In Montana, according to a state tourism official, the "trend that we see is that people are moving away from the interstate" and experiencing the outdoors at places like Clark Canyon Reservoir, which saw 25 percent more visitors last year than in 1998.

Indoor attractions draw large numbers of visitors, too

Not all tourist attractions are in the great outdoors. For those tourists who like to shop, Minnesota's Mall of America attracts more visitors annually than Disney World, Graceland and the Grand Canyon combined. In 1998, 43 million shoppers came through its doors, an increase of about 8 percent over 1995.

Cabela's, an outdoor retail and museum store, has opened in three Ninth District cities in recent years. Boasting oversized sculptures of natural wildlife and huge aquariums with native fish species, the Mitchell, S.D., store is expected to draw 1.5 million visitors this year.

For those who like to gamble, "casinos continue to grow" in the Upper Peninsula, according to Nemachek. The same is true in Minnesota, where Grand Casino of Hinckley and Grand Casino of Mille-Lacs are the state's second and fourth most popular attractions, respectively, based on the number of visits. Together, they attracted 5.3 million visitors in 1998.

Contributing to the upward trend of tourism throughout the Ninth District is the development of new marketing techniques, particularly the Internet, which gives states a much wider reach to a global tourist market. In the last fiscal year, e-mail inquiries to South Dakota almost doubled over the year before. An official with the Wisconsin Department of Tourism attributed a more aggressive Internet marketing technique to the increase in tourist visits and spending. In fact, visitor expenditures rose 65.2 percent from 1993 to 1999.

To make visiting easier and more convenient, states such as Wisconsin and South Dakota have developed online trip planners. These planners allow tourists to conveniently plan where they want to go, when and at what price.

According to Joanne Burke, from the North Dakota Department of Tourism, "Travel continues to increase. People are looking for a new place to go that has been undiscovered—a place that people can unplug and get away."