SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Freedom meant money in South Dakota during 2020.

Gov. Kristi Noem, South Dakota Department of Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken all cited the freedom available in the state during the pandemic in 2020 as attracting visitors. The freedom combined with the state’s many attractions, including outdoor sites, meant South Dakota fared better than other states when it came to tourism.

Hagen and Noem highlighted the 2020 tourism season and their optimism for 2021 in two news conferences in Rapid City and Sioux Falls on Monday. The news conferences were part of National Tourism Week. TenHaken was part of the news conference in Sioux Falls.

Although 2020 was a difficult year in the tourism industry, “in South Dakota we held strong,” Hagen said.

“We broke every expectation…,” Hagen said. “That shows the power of travel and shows the power of freedom.”

TenHaken said the decisions made by the city of Sioux Falls and the state during the pandemic helped to attract people to the city and state.

“We stayed open when every other state closed down at some point,” Noem said.

The more people come to South Dakota, the more tax dollars come into schools, roads, bridges and other needs, Noem said.

The tourism industry is second only to agriculture in its presence in South Dakota. It’s part of the state’s largest source of revenue, which is sales and use tax. So every dollar a visitor spends on a bar drink or on souvenirs generates revenue for the state.

In total, the tourism department said on its website, visitors spent $3.5 billion in the state in 2020. All that spending generated $276 million in tax revenue.

Noem said that $276 million in tax revenue saves each taxpayer household in the state $780 a year.

Of that $276 million, $157 million was in travel and tourism tax revenue collected by local governments. The state collected $119 million in tax revenue.

Although visitor spending was down by 18% over 2019, Noem and Hagen’s comments imply that if the state had a statewide mask mandate or if Noem had not promoted the state as open for visitors, the state could have conceivably lost more valuable revenue.

Despite a pandemic, South Dakota had 12.6 million visitors to and within the state. That’s 1.9 million fewer visitors than in 2019, or a 12.9% loss. Most of the loss came from out-of-state visitors, according to the tourism department’s 2020 report.

A traveler profile for South Dakota from 2016-2018 said 41% of visitors in South Dakota came from within the state.

About 12% came from Minnesota, followed by Iowa (8%), Nebraska (6) and rounded out by Colorado, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Wyoming, each with less than 5%.

Year to date park visitor origin are running similar to the 2016-2018 visitor data, according to the tourism website. Most of the arrivals are from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, followed by Sioux City with about 100,000, or half of the Minneapolis/St. Paul visitors. Another 98,000 came from the Denver area. About 18,400 came from the Chicago area.

Out-of-state and in-state visitors contributed to increases at state parks and national parks.

The numbers included an estimated 462,000 visitors, including a chunk from other states, who attended the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally from Aug. 7 through Aug. 16, according to data from the state and city of Sturgis.

Now, officials “expect a very strong summer season,” Hagen said of what’s ahead.

Noem said the state’s tourism website traffic was up 55% over last year.

Hagen said that in the past 30 days, traffic had increased by 174%. Hagen also said direct inquiries, such as people asking for tourism brochures, had increased by 253%.

The state’s top industry, agriculture has a $20.9 billion to roughly $30 billion annual impact, according to the former South Dakota Department of Agriculture. The agriculture industry supports about 80,000 jobs and supplies about 20% to about 33% of the state’s economic activity.

The tourism industry, in second place, supports about 49,500 jobs, according to the department’s website.