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North Dakota tourism officials not worried yet about #BoycottUSA

Only a couple hours south of Winnipeg, Grand Forks prides itself a prime destination for Canadian tourists. In 2017, the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau spent $130,000 on advertising and social media line items, most of which Executive Director Julie Rygg said was directed at Manitoba.

Canadian tourism is a big deal for the rest of the state, too. North Dakota’s tourism department said it ranks 11th in Canadian visitorship.

Last weekend, following the G7 summit when President Donald Trump clashed with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over tariffs and his comments following the meeting, Canadian hashtags started popping up, threatening to #BoycottUSA, and #BoycottUSProducts. Some Twitter users even claimed they were canceling trips to the U.S.

For North Dakota Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman, it’s too soon for concern in North Dakota.

“I don’t want to say it’s never a concern -- you don’t want to hear people saying they don’t want to visit your area. But we can’t let it influence our strategy,” she said, adding the state department of tourism doesn’t get political.

Otte Coleman’s more concerned with a longer decline in visitors, likely due to the decrease in the strength of the Canadian dollar. She said her office has seen a 6 percent decrease in border crossings since 2017, with almost no change in the number of auto crossings at the Pembina border station.

Contrary to the fear #BoycottUSA will discourage Canadians from coming, Otte Coleman said her office has reason to be optimistic after a recent marketing strategy study, where it found a 407 percent increase in engagement with online ads from May 2017 to May 2018.

“We’re seeing interest again and engagement with our advertising again,” Otte Coleman said. “We’re really optimistic.”

In addition to benefiting the state economically, Canadian Consul General for the Midwest Paul Connors said tourism is an important part of the relationship between the two countries, as well. Connors works out of Minneapolis, representing Canadians in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska. Right now he’s focused on efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, but he’s also helped bring up-and-coming Canadian musicians to the U.S. for festivals.

“Canadians and Americans have the right to travel for leisure up to each others’ countries,” Connors said, elaborating that Americans and Canadians are allowed to stay in each others countries longer than normal visas would allow. “We’ve just had such a great relationship for the past so many centuries.”

In Grand Forks, Rygg said there’s a been great Grand Forks-Canada relationship for many years, too. “I think we’ve had a good relationship where they’re enjoying coming here.”

Right now, Rygg’s top concern isn’t #BoycottUSA, it’s the exchange rate. The Grand Forks visitors center doesn’t have a lot of recent numbers on Canadian tourism, “but while we can’t tell exactly how many Canadians are coming to Grand Forks, we can feel it,” Rygg said.

Along with fewer visitors, Rygg said she’s also noticed more regular visitors, and more people coming for a “quick weekend getaway,” echoing another claim from Otte Coleman that Canadians are also visiting for “soft adventures,” like hiking the Pembina Gorge or canoeing.

A couple of years back, Rygg recruited travel writer Shel Zolkewich to write some entries for the visitors center blog. Zolkewich is a regular visitor, who jokes she must have come to Grand Forks at least a thousand times.

“I’m 53 years old, and I started coming to Grand Forks with my parents as a baby,” she said. “And I continue to make some three to five trips a year.”

Zolkewich said some of the things she’s written are directed at regulars like herself, who maybe come to Grand Forks to shop and don’t realize what else the city has to offer. “Like so many people will say ‘I had no idea there’s an outdoor pool in Grand Forks!’”

With so many Manitobans who are already familiar with Grand Forks, Zolkewich said it’s hard to believe #BoycottUSA will impact the city.

“A lot of what we see on social media is just political play,” she said. “The people in Grand Forks aren’t the ones in the political play.”

Emily Allen

Allen joined the Grand Forks Herald to cover local government and politics May 2018. Call her at 701-780-1102, email her at eallen@gfherald.com or follow her on Twitter, @Emily_theHerald.

(701) 780-1102
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