Eye on KELOLAND: South Dakota tourism and COVID-19

Eye on KELOLAND

Tourism in the Black Hills is essential for the state’s economy. Some seasonal businesses even rely on that revenue to hold them over through winter months.

Custer State Park is one of South Dakota’s most well-known tourist attractions. Visitor services manager, Kobee Stalder, says the first few weeks of tourism season was off to a slow start due to COVID-19.

“There was a slow period, usually we have a rush in springtime, that’s when our bison calves are born. But due to the pandemic that happened, there was a slow start for us,” Stalder said.

However, since Memorial Day, the number of people visiting the park is right back on track with last year.

“Right now, through the month of August, year-to-date, we are up about 4-percent so we’ve seen almost 1.5 million visitors. Yearly average is about 1.8, 1.9 so we are right on par with that to see that again this year. If the weather stays nice, who knows, we could see more,” Stalder said.

Stalder says while the park does get some funding from the state, that money only goes so far.

“Over 80-percent of our operating budget relies on visitation so you never know what could happen. But out here, I think we are going to be just fine heading into the next hundred years,” Stalder said.

The State Game Lodge was also hit hard when COVID-19 interfered with tourism season.

Ryan Flick, the Director of Operations for Custer State Park Resorts, says while the resorts are doing much better now, they’re still making up for some lost revenue.

“The season started slow as it did for everybody else. In May and June, we saw more cancellations than reservations during that time. We lost probably a quarter of our business during that time,” Flick said.

Right now,revenue for State Park’s resorts is still down about 17-percent compared to last year.

However, Flick believes they still have enough money to get through the winter months.

“We feel like we are in a good place in comparison to other parts of the country and just happy to be able to do what we do,” Flick said.

Flick hopes for a strong comeback next year.

Meanwhile, Visit Rapid City CEO, Julie Jensen says while tax dollars are down about 18 to 20-percent this year compared to last, tourism season went much better than expected.

“Our summer has been really quite amazing. We were not sure what to expect starting in March, April and May. But about the First of June things started changing and visitors decided that we were a good place to visit,” Jensen said.

Jensen believes most businesses will make it through the offseason. Although some have chosen to not open.

“Fingers crossed that they may change their mind come next spring. We don’t want anyone to have suffered more than anybody else during this pandemic, but if we can get through it with only a 20-percent reduction in income and in revenue, I think we’ll survive,” Jensen said.

Both Custer State Park and Visit Rapid City are cautiously optimistic that this next month will make a positive impact on the tourism season.

You can visit Custer State Park year-round. The park’s resorts are open from May to October.

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