SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota is one of the leaders in the economic coronavirus recovery in tourism and visitors. The rank is based on a report from the U.S. Travel Association.
Florida is the other leader, said Kirk Hulstein, the industry outreach director for the South Dakota Department of Tourism.
Tourism is South Dakota’s second largest industry behind agriculture so it needs those tourism dollars to help fund the state’s budget. Tourism money made up 5.2% of the state’s economy in 2019 and 4.7% of the state’s economy in the pandemic year of 2020, according to the state’s tourism department.
Although the state began bouncing back during the pandemic year of 2020, the tourism and visitor numbers from Jan. 1 through May 31 of this year appear as though the state is on track to break records set in 2019.
“It’s fair to say we will pass the 2019 records,” Hulstein said.
The U.S. Travel Association reviews visitor spending to determine how well a state’s tourism economy has recovered, Hulstein said.
This year, from Jan. 1 through May 31 visitors spent $1.3 billion in the state, Hulstein said. That’s about 15% more than the $1.2 billion spend in the same period of 2019, he said.
About $1 billion was spent in the same period of 2020, Hulstein said.
The spending has generated about $4.5 million in tax revenue, according to tourism department’s website.
About $4 million in tax revenue was generated in the same period in 2019.
Hulstein said there was a slow start to tourism in 2019 because of snow storms and other weather issues.
The tourism year finished strong in 2019, he said. And there are no indications that things will slow down in 2021 even with higher gas prices, Hulstein said.
Although the overall tourism industry is booming in the state, there are still some slowdowns.
Hulstein said international travel is still slow as well as bus tour traffic.
The Journey Museum and Learning Center in Rapid City had an average of 300 bus tours in 2019 and 2018, said executive director Troy Kilpatrick.
“…back in the olden days,” he said with a laugh.
The Journey had three bus tours in 2020. “We were very grateful to have those three,” Kilpatrick said.
Several bus tours have stopped so far this year. “We had groups come in May and June that had been delayed from 2020. They so wanted to come to the Black Hills so they stayed with the tour company,” Kilpatrick said.
The pandemic has negatively impacted the scheduling of bus tours, he said.
Bus tours are typically scheduled from November through January, Kilpatrick said. Vaccines were still not readily available in those months, which influenced some people to not book a bus tour for the spring and summer, he said.
“Now, we are seeing more intent for August and September,” Kilpatrick said.
Visitors through the door and off the interstate
Kilpatrick said gate tickets at the Journey are about 60% of the 2019 levels. While buses with an average of 45 people aren’t yet frequent visitors, he’s seeing families stop.
The museum and learning center is now open five days a week instead of seven to adjust for the changes created by the pandemic, he said.
During pre-pandemic years, the museum and learning center had slower traffic on Mondays and Tuesdays so it closed on those days.
The tourism recovery has been spread around the state, Hulstein said. Tourism outreach workers are learning from tourism sites in smaller towns that visitors are stopping.
“For the the most part we are seeing an influx of visitors passing through,” Hulstein said. “Small town museums are seeing visitors they don’t normally see.”
Florida, South Dakota by some numbers
Tourism has a huge impact in Florida, the other state named as a leader in tourism recovery.
According to a Jan. 21 report by the Florida Legislature Office of Economic and Demographic Research, $3.8 billion of the $24.5 billion in sales tax collections in 2018-2019 came from purchases made by tourists.
Tourism activity in Florida in 2017, generated $13. 3 billion in federal tax revenue and $11.4 billion in state and local tax revenue, according to a Rockport Analytics study cited by the University of Central Florida.
Tourism generated $276 million in tax generated revenue in 2020, according to the South Dakota Department of Tourism. The number was $308 million in 2019.
Tourism supports 49,500 jobs in South Dakota.
According to Visit Florida Research, tourism supports 1.5 million jobs in Florida. The state had 79.8 million visitors in 2020.
Like South Dakota, the majority traveled to Florida in a vehicle in 2020.
Handling all those visitors is a challenge
Hulstein said he was recently in the Black Hills area where tourism spots were “pushed to the max.”
South Dakota has a low unemployment rate and it’s difficult to find all the needed workers in the tourism industry, state officials have said for several months. COVID-19 has also slowed the number of foreign workers who can come to the state to work during the tourism season.
Black Hills State University has introduced a new program to try and address the tourism worker shortage. It will establish a 16-to-18 month program that includes an internship working in the industry. The program will be in the Rapid City branch and result in an associate’s degree upon completion, an April 8 story by KELOLAND’s Bob Mercer said.
In a July 8 state news release, Jim Hagen, the secretary of the department of tourism, credited the tourism industry with perform outstanding during the challenges of the pandemic that continued into this year.