North Dakota tourism rebounds despite Canada border closure

Fishing Visit Garrison North Dakota
North Dakota fisheries draw game-fish anglers year-round. (Photo by Visit Garrison)

BISMARCK, N.D. — Outdoor recreation surged this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the 20-month U.S.-Canada border closure to nonessential travel cut into North Dakota’s tourism industry.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction, is on track to have its best visitation since 1978, surpassing 791,000 visitors through October.

North Dakota state parks had a consecutive record year for camping nights: nearly 95,000 nights at campsites and cabins.

The Medora Musical had its second-best attendance in 56 years, just shy of 124,000 people.

“Outdoors this year were huge,” state Tourism Division Director Sara Otte Coleman said.

Final year statistics are still a couple of months away, “but our third-quarter numbers look really strong,” she said.

Last year, 18.7 million visitors spent $2.1 billion in North Dakota, a 32% drop from 2019 spending due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Tourism Economics report.

Through September of this year, visits to major attractions in North Dakota were up 87% over the same period last year, according to a state marketing update.

The national park had increased monthly visitation for several months in 2021, including ones in winter, “not traditionally the July and August months that you would think about,” Otte Coleman said.

“That’s kind of exciting, too, because it shows us that our season is lengthening,” she said.

Many park visitors this year “expressed an interest in enjoying the beautiful open spaces the North Dakota Badlands have to offer,” Park Deputy Superintendent Maureen McGee-Ballinger said. “Just as Theodore Roosevelt found the Badlands a healing space, so do many of our visitors.”

The park through October had seen 48% more visitors than last year, though the park did close for a few weeks in 2020 due to the pandemic and staffing, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

The state Parks and Recreation Department is “looking at having another busy season in 2022” with the reopening of the border to nonessential travel last month, spokeswoman Kristin Byram said.

Despite the busy park season, the Fort Lincoln Trolley, which runs from Mandan to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park south of the city, suspended operations in 2021 due to pandemic difficulties and trouble finding workers.

Hotel occupancy through October rose 21% over last year, though statewide hotel occupancy rates have not surpassed 2019, according to Otte Coleman.

And the state is still waiting for business travel to return to pre-pandemic levels, she said.

Taxable sales and purchases for arts, entertainment and recreation, and for accommodation and food service, for the first half of 2021 were up 29% and 24%, respectively, over the same period in 2020, according to the state Tax Office.

But the coronavirus pandemic still took a bite out of tourism this year, largely because of the U.S.-Canada border closure for over a year and a half.

Canadians were missing from northern North Dakota events and attractions and also from Medora, where Western Edge Books, Artwork, Music owner Doug Ellison said “We used to see a lot of Canadian traffic, mainly going to and from the Black Hills.”

The Tourism Division estimates North Dakota lost about $259 million in Canadian visitor spending due to the border closure, according to Otte Coleman.

But attractions such as the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, Papa’s Pumpkin Patch in Bismarck and ND Country Fest in New Salem “had stellar years,” she said.

The Tourism Division’s website traffic, “our No. 1 signal of intent to travel,” was up about 50% last year over 2019, and this year rose nearly 22% over the record 2020 online traffic, according to Otte Coleman.

Ninety-three percent of that traffic is from first-timers to the site, she said.

“That tells us that our marketing’s working, and that people are piquing interest … and people are taking that next step to learn more,” Otte Coleman said.

Web traffic from Canada jumped in the last two months, she added.

Visitation from some states including Florida, Maine, Pennsylvania and Washington doubled this year from 2020, according to a Tourism Division report.

The division has focused on Illinois, a market with “potential for large numbers” of visitors, and newly on Denver, due to the population of ex-North Dakotans who have moved there, many for outdoor recreation, according to Otte Coleman.

Colorado has had a lot more pressure on its outdoors, she said. North Dakota’s new marketing campaign boosted Tourism Division website traffic from the Centennial State by 141%.

“That (strategy) really focused on the fact that we still have pristine, wide open spaces without crowds,” she said.

Travel and tourism have “such a statewide impact” compared to other industries, Otte Coleman said.

Visitors spend more on restaurants and retail than on accommodations, she said.

“Maybe (some counties only) have a campground, and they’re known for a great fishing lake, or they may just have really limited resources, but they still get traffic and travelers spending money, which helps sustain those businesses in the community,” she said.

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