SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — While it won’t be as many as in past years, South Dakota expects visitors this Labor Day weekend, said Jim Hagen, the secretary for the South Dakota Department of Tourism.
Hagen said traffic on the state’s tourism website has been increasing recently. Traffic has increased 111% this year over last year, Hagen said on Sept. 3.
“The requests for vacation guides are up by 73%,” Hagen said. “Those are huge indicators that people will be traveling this week or traveling sometime soon.”
Labor Day weekend is often viewed as the end of the summer tourist season.
South Dakota tourism has weathered the coronavirus pandemic in decent shape so far, according to indicators used by the tourism department.
Visitation at state parks topped five million visitors and increased by 28% over last year as of July 31, Hagen said.
Recent hotel occupancy rates were at 65% for July. Although national spending on tourism was down by about 44% for the week ending Aug. 22, South Dakota’s was down by 17 to 20%, Hagen said.
“Overall, (it’s been a) farely good summer,” Hagen said.
The western portion of the state fared better than the central, northeastern and southeastern parts of the state, Hagen said.
Although the department shows that visitation was healthy at some state parks, the sluggish summer in is driven in part by reductions in conventions and events, Hagen said.
“Sports tournaments are huge,” Hagen said of central, northeast and southeast South Dakota. COVID-19 has caused the cancelation of a lot of sports tournaments, he said.
Also, business travel is big in southeastern South Dakota, particularly in the Sioux Falls area, and that travel decreased over the summer, Hagen said.
The characteristics of the state that made it attractive to visitors this summer are the same ones that will make it attractive over Labor Day weekend, Hagen said.
The AAA’s summer travel forecast released on June 25 said car travel would be the top means of travel from July to mid-September. The AAA said car trips would account for 97% of the favored means of transportation. Car trips would have the lowest decrease in travel at a 3% decrease.
South Dakota is viewed as a safe destination because of its wide-open spaces, he said. It is a destination that people can reach by car and people have felt safe traveling in vehicles during the pandemic, Hagen said.
South Dakota is also viewed as a safe destination during the pandemic because of its wide open spaces, Hagen said.
Those features “set us up so well,” Hagen said of visitors.
Travelers have also appreciated the states approach to the pandemic which has been no mask mandates or mandated closures of businesses but instead to encourage individuals and businesses to follow health and safety guidelines, Hagen said.
“We are so well-positioned to attract people because of the way the state has handled the pandemic,” Hagen said.
Tourism officials heard this summer “how much they appreciated the fact the state was letting each individual make decisions” related to COVID-19, Hagen said.
Hagen is confident the state will continue to attractive visitors over Labor Day weekend.
Still, he doesn’t expect the numbers from prior years.
Labor Day weekend 2019 was in the top three weekends that drove visitation to our state, said Katlyn Richter of the South Dakota Tourism.
Economists predict the Labor Day tourism impact will be half of a typical year, Hagen said.
Trips for the upcoming national Labor Day and Thanksgiving holidays currently look to be off by half relative to 2019, according to Destination Analysis. The company is a travel and tourism market research firm based in San Francisco, California, according to its website. Although Labor Day trips are expected to be down over last year, more people were planning trips as of Aug. 30 than in the prior week, the company said.
Hagen said there was about an even split between tourists who chose South Dakota as a destination and those who stopped while traveling to another destination.
State travel data through July 31, the most recent month for detailed travel data, show that about 565,000 of the total arrivals came from the Minneapolis St. Paul area. Another 300,000 arrivals came from the Denver, Colorado, area.
The state has a history of drawing visitors from Minnesota and other nearby states. A 2015 tourism visitor profile, the most recent profile, said that 11% of all visitors came from Minnesota. Visitors from Iowa accounted for 3.9% while 4% came from Nebraska and 5.4% came from North Dakota. Visitors from Colorado accounted for 5.1% of the total.
South Dakota drew visitors from nearby states this summer but there was also increased number of visitors from western and eastern states, Hagen said.
Although the state’s tourism department focuses on visitors, it’s also been handling inquiries from people who may want to move to the state or located a business here, Hagen said.
“I’m just blown away,” Hagen said of the questions the department receives about moving or locating a business.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
The department received 80 such emails this past weekend. And as of the morning of Sept. 3, there was five, Hagen said.
Although Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health care experts have expressed concerns about Labor Day weekend travel and gatherings, including family gatherings, Hagen said the non-tourism contacts are just another indicator the state is safe.
Still, people need to practice good hand washing and other safety measures, Hagen said.
Travelers who aren’t feeling well should stay home, he said.
Tourism businesses and sites in the state work hard to keep visitors safe, he said.
Hagen said he can only speak to how well the tourism industry is doing at keeping visitors safe from COVID-19 and can’t address the COVID-19 cases traced to the annual August Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.