GRAND FORKS — In the long, endless summer of COVID — marked by lockdowns, early closings and all kinds of travel restrictions — there just wasn’t very much to do.
So, in and around Grand Forks, people went outside.
“We went into the season like everybody: pretty much on a lockdown,” said Larry Hagen, manager at Turtle River State Park, west of Grand Forks. "But the one thing that became very apparent to us, with everything shut down, we became everybody's outlet."
As the year wore on, and restrictions began to loosen, Turtle River’s hiking and biking trails became one of the hottest spots in the region. Annual visitation typically hovers just above 80,000, Hagen said, but in 2020, there were more than 120,000 guests, with constant comments that visitors had never seen the trails so well-used.
"We heard reports it was hard to buy a bike,” Hagen said. “Well, they were all here.”
That pent-up, displaced demand for something to do has been near-universal. At Yellowstone National Park, September visitation was up 21% over 2019, per the National Park Service, for the busiest September since record-keeping began. Americans might be nervous to head to the bar or take the family to the movies, but they’re still looking for something to do.
For leaders in North Dakota’s tourism industry, that pent-up desire looks like opportunity — an economic racecar, revving its engine, just waiting for the green flag and open track ahead. Sara Otte Coleman, North Dakota’s director of tourism and marketing, points out a January survey that shows the percent of Americans interested in visiting parks, resorts, foreign countries and the like jumped double-digit percentages since May.
In short: Americans are champing at the bit to travel outdoors. And that could mean good things for North Dakota.
“We've got the experiences and kind of the top things that people are going to be seeking,” Otte Coleman said, pointing out that North Dakota’s state parks broke records this year, with camping nights up 35%. “The opportunity is making sure that they're aware that North Dakota has these things."
More specifically: Otte Coleman would like the North Dakota Legislature to spend $2 million more on advertising in the coming biennium. Right now, she said, the state’s tourism division is run on a $9.6 million two-year budget cycle, but raising it by $2 million in advertising funding — plus more for everyday operations — would help it expand its reach and impact.
“When you look at the total budget — the total marketing budget — we're just a fraction of, almost half of, what the other states in our region are,” she said. “So in order to compete and get our message out there, we really need some additional dollars.”
To illustrate this, Otte Coleman provided summaries of nearby states’ annual 2020 budget numbers, as collected by the U.S. Travel Association. The figures, she said, are standardized by the group, removing spending on some items like grants or visitor center operations to help make the numbers easier to compare. North Dakota’s spending, under those conditions, is at $4.5 million per year (slightly less than half of that $9.6 million two-year allocated budget).
Other states’ annual spending appears to run well ahead of that, ranging from Montana at $9.7 million, to Minnesota at $9.9 million, up to South Dakota at $15.1 million, which Otte Coleman said still doesn’t count millions in federal relief funding South Dakota also spent on tourism initiatives.
House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, didn’t commit to anything — it’s very early in a session eyeing federal stimulus and juggling a whole host of other issues — but he told the Herald that he’s open to boosting tourism funding.
"We had parks and recreation (funding),” he said of recent House committee considerations, “and I think we have tried to recognize just what you're talking about. Those have received high usage.”
The ask comes at a critical juncture for North Dakota’s future, during a time when many state departments are looking to save money. But with vaccine rollout well underway, North Dakota is poised to shake off the worst of the COVID economic slump this year. North Dakota is among the most efficient states in the country in distributing its vaccines, with about 12% of its population receiving at least one vaccine shot. That’s well ahead of the national average of 10%, per a New York Times database accessed Wednesday.
That has many observers optimistic. Julie Rygg, who heads the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau, said things look poised to get better soon. Youth hockey is bouncing back and early planning for big, outdoor events for later this year — like the Downtown Street Fair — is already underway.
"We are actually starting to see a little bit of that light at the end of the tunnel,” Rygg said.
That’s a sharp contrast with where things were six months ago, when the hotel and hospitality industry was hammered by COVID and was still facing down the deepest, darkest weeks of North Dakota’s pandemic cases, which arrived in November. Rygg, speaking in the fall, had said the hospitality sector was facing a “depression.”
Clare Albrecht remembers it well. As the senior regional director of sales for National Hospitality Services — which operates Staybridge Suites in Grand Forks — she remembers the earliest weeks of the pandemic, which slammed demand shut for weeks. Staybridge’s kitchenettes helped save revenues, but she said Grand Forks’ overall occupancy rate was down 25% in 2020.
The future looks brighter. Some business might not come back — corporate America is quickly realizing that virtual training and Zoom calls work just as well as in-person visits, Albrecht said. But she’s banking on nothing ever really replacing the in-person visit.
"We're looking at things like staycations for families, doing more of that type of marketing to create additional demand,” she said. “... It's like, come and enjoy a little getaway without having to travel far or hop on a flight."
And Mark Schill, a consultant with Praxis Strategy Group in Grand Forks, points out that much of the travel to Grand Forks comes from the Minneapolis area, Fargo and other regions within driving distance.
"That suggests that the low-hanging fruit for the tourism economy in Grand Forks is probably regional, and it's probably car travel," he said. "My guess is that that travel might come back more quickly than air travel."
Hagen has his fingers crossed that next year stays strong, coasting off the strength of last year’s pandemic bump.
"People found out where we're at — what we can provide, how close we are to the Grand Forks area," he said. He launches into the parksman’s sales pitch: it’s just a short 20 minutes from downtown Grand Forks to 15 miles of trails and all the birdwatching you could want.
"I'd like to provide this service to a lot of people," Hagen said.