SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — “2020 could have been a really devastating year for us, but it was much, much better than what we expected,” South Dakota Tourism Secretary James Hagen said.

The pandemic took a major hit on the travel and tourism industry across the country, but South Dakota still saw some record numbers of visitors at state and national parks in 2020; they’re expecting an even bigger year for visitors in 2021.

To kick off national travel and tourism week, Governor Kristi Noem and the South Dakota Department of Tourism are traveling across the state promoting a big year for the industry. As one of the only fully opened states, Tourism Secretary James Hagen says South Dakota is leading the nation in travel and tourism right now, numbers he only expects to grow this summer.

“My expectations are very, very high,” Hagen said. “In the last 30 days alone, our website traffic is up 173 percent, our inquiries are up 213 percent, those are people requesting a vacation guide.”
South Dakota leaders say being open for business is a big draw for visitors.

“This is an opportunity where families want to travel, those that are comfortable traveling want to go somewhere where they can be outdoors, enjoy the beautiful trails that we have, they can enjoy our restaurants, they can enjoy our museums,” Governor Kristi Noem said. “South Dakota has been flexible in how we’re able to keep those businesses open and still keep people safe.”

Governor Kristi Noem says the state’s vaccination rollout is helping boost travelers’ confidence.

“The fact that we perform so well on distribution of vaccines gives people a lot of comfort across the country as they visit here,” Noem said. 

Now the state is working to help make sure businesses are ready to support the influx of guests.

“I know that the biggest challenge that we have in many businesses today is workforce, getting the bodies to fill the jobs that we need in order to take care of people to fill the hospitality industry,” Noem said. 

“I met folks on the western side of the state this morning that said we are in desperate need of J1 and H2B workers and we just can’t get them,” Hagen said. 

While state and congressional leaders are lobbying the federal government for more temporary foreign workers South Dakota’s travel industry depends on, the state Department of Labor and Department of Tourism is now teaming up on a nationwide campaign to attract more hospitality workers.

“One area I’m specifically looking at are retirees that are out there,” Hagen said. “I’m hearing from people every day, people saying hey, we’re thinking about coming to visit, we’re thinking of relocating and a lot of them are retirees, it’s a great chance to see them and put them in this job.”