SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — While a state official said the South Dakota tourism industry is open the recovery from the impact from coronavirus looks different depending on the region of the state.
After a tough bout with COVID-19 in which tourism tax revenue steadily declined from March to a 69.4% drop in May compared to 2019, “We are at the point where the tourism industry is open,” said Jim Hagen, the secretary of the South Dakota Department of Tourism.
As national, state and local tourism sites open to visitors, some in phases, other sites have found it more difficult to open.
COVID-19 closed Brookings County Museum in Volga, at least until late summer.
The coronavirus pandemic started causing some problems months before the Brookings County Historical Society board decided to close the museum, board president Phil Wagner said.
“I think our youngest member is 65,” Wagner said. Those 65 and over are among the population that are vulnerable to COVID-19, according to the Center for Disease Control.
The historical society was remodeling some buildings when the coronavirus arrived, Wagner said. Work shifts were dramatically reduced because volunteers wanted to be safe, he said.
The renovations would not have been completed before Memorial Day when the museum traditionally opens, Wagner said.
The historical society is hoping it can open on Aug. 1 but it depends on the remodeling progress and the coronavirus, Wagner said.
The state tracks tourism tax revenue and travel spending estimates which have also dramatically decreased in the past three months. Fewer travelers means fewer hotel stays and can mean less money spent in local businesses.
A different local story to the west of Volga
About 35 minutes away to the west of Volga on U.S. Highway 14, the Laura Ingalls Memorial Society in DeSmet is open for the summer tourism season.
“We are in it for the long run,” executive director Tessa Flak said opening the society’s building and grounds to visitors. “We have to figure out the best way we do what we do, the best way we can and as safe as we can.”
Back in mid-March, Flak wasn’t sure the Laura Ingalls Memorial Society would be able to open to tourists. But as COVID-19 numbers did not increase dramatically across the state and Kingsbury County was COVID-19 free until recently, the society board decided to open on June 1.
It is a different kind of open this year as tours are limited to nine guests and a tour guide and reservations are strongly recommended, Flak said. Other health and safety measures include maintaining six-feet of social distancing, the wearing of masks and even more cleaning.
Decisions made in Volga and DeSmet are decisions being made by other tourism and visitor sites around the state, Hagen said.
Signs of improvement
Hagen said there are signs that tourism in picking up in South Dakota. His department watches four main areas to track the condition of tourism.
There are four national surveys that gauge people’s interest in traveling, such as in the next three months, six months and beyond, Hagen said. Those surveys are encouraging.
Also, visits and length of time spent on the state’s tourism website have recently increased.
“Things have started to rebound in a little less than a month,” Hagen said.
An increase in time spent on the website means people are serious about traveling to and within the state, Hagen said.
The state is also receiving more requests for visitor’s guides.
The fourth area is advanced hotel and airline reservations.
“Those are starting to uptick with bookings into late summer and early fall,” Hagen said.
Positive signs in DeSmet include four to five tours a day since the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society opened its grounds, Flak said.
“That’s fairly decent for the beginning of June and because of COVID-19,” Flak said.
The goal is to conduct eight tours a day when the society is full staffed for the season, she said.
Any increases in tourism are steps toward recovery in the industry.
Tourism tax revenue is down 3.1% year to date, according to the state of South Dakota. The revenue was down 28.5% in April compared to 2019 and dropped by 69.4% in May compared to 2019.
The hotel/motel industry may have suffered the most.
Teri Schmidt, executive director of Experience Sioux Falls, said in a May 15 KELOLAND News story that hotel occupancy in Sioux Falls was down 15 to 20% on a good day.
In a March 19 KELOLAND News story Nathan Sanderson, executive director of the South Dakota Retailers Association, said, one motel chain that is a member of the retail association typically has an occupancy rate this time of year at 75 to 90%. “Right now they are at 10% occupancy.”
Hagen said advanced bookings for hotels in South Dakota have been increasing. It will take time to rebuild the hotel industry but the industry is committed to doing that as quickly as possible, Hagen said.
Doing business with COVID-19
Any recovery in tourism will include a new way of doing business at least through the pandemic, according to Hagen.
Hotels have implemented contact free check-in done through smart phones, for example, Hagen said.
Tourism sites must consider what visitors want in terms of health and safety and what they need to do to keep employees safe, Hagen said.
Early in the pandemic, Flak said it was believed that this summer’s tourists would be from within South Dakota. That’s not true, at least for the first week in DeSmet.
Flak said most visitors have been from out of state including from Florida and Georgia.
“We’re getting emails every day from all over the country,” Hagen said.
Out of state visitors want to visit and some have said it’s because of how the state handled the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.