BISMARCK — Under normal circumstances, North Dakota is not exactly one of the country’s major summer vacation destinations.

The state’s natural beauty is undeniable, but it’s far off the beaten path for most travelers.

Ironically, that same geographic seclusion seems to be one of North Dakota’s main draws for tourists during the summer of COVID-19.

The sparsely populated state and surrounding region are beginning to emerge as a refuge for those looking to get away from COVID-19 outbreaks around the country and the restrictions that come with them.

Sara Otte Coleman, the state's director of tourism and marketing, said North Dakota becoming a "safe-cation" destination for road-trippers could be a much-needed silver lining for the still-recovering local hospitality industry.

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Outside requests for information from North Dakota's Tourism Division are up in 43 of 50 states, Otte Coleman said.

In a strange way, the state's tourism messaging aligned with the "new normal" of social distancing before the pandemic hit. Otte Coleman unveiled the slogan "Follow your curiosity, not the crowds" in January as part of a campaign to sell travelers on North Dakota's open spaces and outdoor recreation opportunities.

She thinks some of the outsiders visiting this summer view the state as genuine because it didn't have to reinvent itself to accommodate COVID-19 considerations.

But the recent rise in arrivals of out-of-state travelers isn't all good. It could have unfavorable implications for North Dakota if tourists from COVID-19 hotspots like Texas, Florida, California and Arizona bring the virus with them into the state. Unlike those places, North Dakota has staved off a massive surge in new cases and kept its reopening plan on track.

Kirby Kruger, the state director of disease control, said health officials are always taking into consideration the idea that travelers could be introducing the illness to North Dakotans, but he noted that it isn't a common way the virus has spread in the state.

Officials are trying to strike the right balance between preventing COVID-19 transmission and allowing residents and businesses to return to a sense of normalcy, albeit one with masks and distancing, Kruger said.

He noted extreme measures, like reinstituting mandatory quarantine orders for those entering or reentering the state, haven't been taken off the table. However, he said promoting education about basic precautions to hold the virus in check is the state's main focus.

A slow return for tourism

As in just about every corner of the world, North Dakota's tourism sector has suffered mightily during the pandemic.

The state missed out on nearly $600 million in projected visitor spending and $46 million in state and local tax revenue between mid-March and late June, Otte Coleman said. During the middle of last month, hotel occupancy hovered just above 40%, far below normal summer levels. Many of the losses are due to the near-total drop-off in business travel and conventions.

But as North Dakota's appeal as a road trip destination strengthens, the state's tourism industry seems to be doing slightly better than its counterparts in most other states, Otte Coleman said.

Charley Johnson, president and CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, said visitors from 31 states, excluding Minnesota and North Dakota, have come through the visitor center since it reopened on June 22.

While the center has still only seen about half of its normal summer traffic, Johnson said he's encouraged by the recent uptick in tourists. The center has welcomed more than 200 visitors from out of state in fewer than two weeks, with many coming from Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Recently, Johnson said the center has seen more Texans and Californians, too.

He said the bureau recommends out-of-state visitors take a road trip around the state and its southern neighbor to get a taste of the Dakotas.

"There’s pent-up demand for people to get out of their homes, and they feel much safer driving than flying," Johnson said. "We try to make it easy for them to do that when they visit us too."

One of the bureau's endorsed road trip stops is Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. The park, which reopened in May, is one of the state's top attractions in non-pandemic times.

Chief Ranger Grant Geis said visitation to the park from all over the country is picking up and tourist town Medora is starting to look like it normally does in the summer.

He said some visitors at the park switched their plans from visiting high-infection areas, but he hadn't spoken to anyone who explicitly said they came to North Dakota because of the low rate of COVID-19 transmission.

‘The virus is still out there’

During the pandemic, Otte Coleman said her agency has "cautiously promoted" North Dakota tourism and delayed some advertising campaigns with the acknowledgement that the threat of the virus still looms. She said her staff has refocused on marketing to residents of North Dakota and nearby states while scaling back ads in Chicago. The agency never had plans to do outreach in far-away markets like Texas or California.

The state's top tourism promoter said "public health has to be number one," noting a healthy economy can't exist without a healthy state.

Sara Otte Coleman   Submitted photo
Sara Otte Coleman Submitted photo

In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, former State Health Officer Mylynn Tufte issued a quarantine order in late March for travelers from states with high rates of community spread. It was later amended to apply only to international travelers entering the state.

Otte Coleman added that with the state's enhanced testing and contact tracing operations, she hoped health officials could avoid taking that restrictive step again.

Kruger said the aim of health officials is to ensure North Dakota residents and visitors take the right actions to stop the spread of COVID-19 before any restrictions on movement would be necessary. He said the practical steps of hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing are still important. He added that residents coming back from a high-infection area may want to self-quarantine for two weeks even though it's no longer legally required.

"People are eager to get out and enjoy the North Dakota summer because it's awfully short, and I don't blame them," Kruger said. "Being outdoors is great. We're just encouraging people to continue to take some basic precautions to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus."