GRAND FORKS — There’s a gigantic buffalo monument in Jamestown — the biggest in the world, the state likes to claim — that helps Allison Limke keep tabs on local tourist traffic. Limke and the rest of the experts at Jamestown Tourism are taking note.

Limke, a visitor experience manager with the group, said 2021 has meant big traffic. In July, the group counted 16,117 cars — a banner month, and the best in years, up from about 12,100 a year before and about 13,100 two years prior.

It’s one tiny data point that’s shown North Dakota’s tourism industry — a crucial part of its economy — slowly coming back. As fears of the pandemic subside, travelers are hitting the road again, slowly boosting visitor figures like Limke’s around the state.

Limke said it’s a sign that a much hoped-for post-COVID surge in travel might have finally arrived.

“There is some pent-up demand that people wanted to get out,” she said. “And there is definitely a case to be made about how North Dakota is rural. We have everything you need to have a good vacation. We have great sites and great amenities, and we have so much space because we don’t have those urban centers, those big volumes of people.”

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Limke’s excitement for a return of the tourists is widely shared. Julie Rygg is the executive director of Visit Greater Grand Forks, and she’s watched with excitement as the tourism industry in the region has returned.

“2021 started out slower, but what we really saw from spring into summer and now into fall (was) events coming back, athletic tournaments coming back,” she said, with conventions even starting to bounce back as well. “And now, of course, with the (reopened Canadian) border, we’re feeling even better.”

Big news from earlier this week could mean another surge. Canadian television network CBC reported on Wednesday, Nov. 17, that Canada’s government soon will no longer require proof of a negative COVID-19 test for its residents before crossing back into Canada. The change is expected to apply to Canadians who have been in the U.S. for short visits — three days or fewer.

Although the U.S. opened its border to southbound travelers on Nov. 8, Canada’s requirement of a negative test was proving to be a roadblock to restoring full cross-border traffic.

In towns like Grand Forks, easing that restriction at the border could mean more Canadians in town, boosting the retail industry and increasing attendance at events.

At Grand Forks’ Alerus Center, General Manager Anna Rosburg said there’s been enormous demand in concerts. Conventions, though, are indeed coming back slower, as business groups and others make a slower, more COVID-cautious return to everyday life, bolstered by new work-from-home technologies.

When Rosburg spoke to the Grand Forks Herald, the Alerus Center had held — or was contracted to hold — 397 events in 2021, and Rosburg predicted a few more would be added before year’s end. That’s not as high as the 471 it notched in 2019, but well ahead of the 323 it had in 2020.

“I think the Alerus Center is as busy as ever,” Rosburg said. “We’ve had a record-setting fall. It’s been really positive. Things have felt like pre-pandemic levels on the arena side of our business. Sales have been really strong for our ticketed events.”

It all represents what state officials had hoped for earlier this year: that tourists, tired of lockdowns and social distancing, would shake off their travel fears and head back into the world as vaccines boosted Americans’ confidence. Sara Otte Coleman, the state director of tourism and marketing, had hoped for as much in February as she pitched the Legislature on funds for more marketing.

Federal COVID funding has helped the agency sustain its state marketing campaign for longer this year, she said, likely boosting interest in the state.

“When you look at overall recovery, leisure travel was very strong,” she said. “Many of the events and traditional summer attractions recorded their best year ever.”