SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Pent-up demand fueled the 2021 tourism season in South Dakota as the state hit $4.4 billion in visitor spending and $345 million in state sales tax collections.

The numbers posted so far this year won’t likely beat 2021. But when compared to a pre-COVID-19 pandemic year of 2019, they compare well. The numbers also show a region doesn’t need a National Monument or huge state park to draw visitors.

“2019 was a normal type of year,” said Kasi Haberman, the executive director of the Southeast Dakota Tourism Association. “For 2020 and 2021, it not really good to compare them to this year.”

The 2020 tourist season was generally hampered by COVID-19 across the nation as it changed people’s travel plans and many activities or events were canceled or postponed. South Dakota did have visitors in 2020 spurred, in part, because there were no statewide mandates or uniform policies on COVID-19 and was considered more open than other states with statewide policies or mandates.

The big boost in 2021 was because of pent-up travel demand, said Jim Hagen, the secretary of the South Dakota Department of Tourism.

“Compared to 2019, our numbers were fairly strong during the peak season, Hagen said. Spending is up this year by 10% to 11% this year but Hagen said because inflation increased prices the actual spending increase is about 1% to 2% over last year.

Park visits were at 1.7 million in July 2019 and at 1.8 million in July 2022.

In July of 2019, about $2.2 million in tax revenue was generated compared to $2.4 million in July of 2022.

The tax revenue is critical to the state’s general fund budget. More than 60% of the state revenue for fiscal year 2022 was sales and use taxes. Tax revenue from tourism is part of that.

Hagen said the money spent by visitors, even state residents who travel inside the state helps pay for roads and services in South Dakota.

Haberman said businesses in the southeast tourism region are using 2019 as a benchmark for this year.

No Mount Rushmore or Custer State Park

State tourism highlights road trips, cultural and historical sites and others on its website and marketing.

But how does a tourism region fare with having only one of the Big 8 sites in its backyard?

Pretty well, if the southeast South Dakota region is an indicator.

Data from the state tourism’s monthly dashboard states that through July 31, Minnehaha County had $616,586,000 in visitor revenue.

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Falls Park in Sioux Falls

Yankton County had $38,157,786. Yankton County has the Missouri River and Lewis and Clark Lake, but Haberman said camping in that area was down in 2022 from 2021. The Missouri River is one of the Big 8.

Through July 31, the revenue from the top two big four western tourism counties: $456,834,339 in Pennington County and $172,479,542 in Lawrence County are needed to pass the revenue in Minnehaha County.

“The (Black) Hills brings in visitors from a bigger radius. The people looking for those iconic attractions,” Haberman said. “It may someone’s main summer vacation.”

The Yankton County area draws repeat visitors who want fishing and recreation on the water and camping, Haberman said.

“If you look at Sioux Falls, it’s heavily driven by activities,” Haberman said.

Hagen said there is no doubt that regions around the state, including southeast South Dakota are drawing visitors.

“What we are seeing in the eastern part of the state is year over year growth,” Hagen said.

The return of sporting events, conventions, concerts and similar contribute to that growth, he said.

“It’s exciting,” Hagen said of the interest in eastern South Dakota. “We’d have to look at the numbers for several years to see if there is some sort of trend.”

The tourism marketing campaigns including the Create Passport Highlighting Arts & Culture program launched today, Aug. 24, to encourage in-state and out-of-state travelers to visit sites around the state.

Why some dips in this year’s tourism season

As the peak tourism approached in South Dakota, tourism officials noted gas prices and inflation.

Hagen said inflation and high gas prices caused some cancelations of campground reservations and changed other types of trips for visitors.

The tourism department’s performance indicator dashboard from Jan. 1 through July 31 showed that park visits were down 4.3% during that period compared to the same time in 2021. For July alone, room nights, hotel occupancy, airport arrivals, total visitations, visitor spending and tax revenue were all down compared to 2021.

Through Aug. 22, tax revenue declined 21.4% from 2021 as total visitation declined by 19.2%.

With Labor Day weekend and the fall tourism ahead, Hagen said, “We are feeling better than we were heading into the peak season.”

Haberman said the fall typically means a particular type of camper returns because it’s less busy. A nice fall will increase the number of campers.

Farther north in the region, a good pheasant hunting season will also help visitor revenue, she said.

Hagen said in talks with GFP officials about the pheasant hunting season, “We’re feeling good about it.”

If you don’t have one of the 54,000 jobs the state said is created by tourism, the dip in tourism revenue is still important.

Without tourism, each household in the state would have paid $980 more in taxes in 2021, according to the state.

“So much of the 2021 season centered around the Black Hills,” Hagen said. “It was bursting at the seams.”

KELOLAND’s Sydney Thorson reported on Aug. 19 that businesses in the Rapid City area noted a dip in tourism for 2022. But they also said that 2021 was an unusually good year for tourism.

If numbers have dipped some in the Black Hills region in 2022 from 2021, it’s not a surprise, Hagen said.

But, Haberman said, the Game Fish and Parks officials in her region have noted fewer campers than in 2021.

“Camping (numbers) have been astronomical since COVID started and it’s slowed down a little bit,” Haberman said.