In 2020, Turtle River State Park had more than 120,000 visitors. In a typical year, the park – about 20 miles west of Grand Forks – sees about 80,000. Camping nights were up 35% at North Dakota state parks statewide and traffic on the North Dakota tourism website was up 52%, with increased traffic from 48 states.

On a national scale, Yellowstone National Park’s September visitation was up 21% over September 2019, and a January survey showed the percentage of Americans interested in visiting parks, resorts and foreign countries jumped double-digits since May.

Some in the tourism industry feel it all indicates a pent-up demand for outdoors-related tourism and activities – a demand that could increase as coronavirus numbers subside and as vaccines become more available.

It all could bode well for North Dakota, which has scenic beauty, endless open spaces and is situated on the way to destinations like Yellowstone and Glacier National Park.

But is the state prepared to take advantage of the potential influx? Early indications make it appear so, evidenced by enthusiasm in the state tourism office and new dollars appropriated this session by the state Senate.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

“We've got the experiences and kind of the top things that people are going to be seeking,” Sara Otte Coleman, North Dakota’s director of tourism and marketing, recently told the Grand Forks Herald. “The opportunity is making sure that they're aware that North Dakota has these things."

But since rival states’ budgets dwarf North Dakota’s, enthusiasm in the tourism division can only go so far. The Legislature needs to dedicate more dollars toward marketing in the coming biennium to help North Dakota catch up with, or at least stay close to, the efforts being made by nearby states.

At present, North Dakota’s tourism division runs on a budget of about $4.8 million annually, or about $9.6 million per biennium. A little more than $2 million is specifically for marketing – well behind the marketing dollars spent by Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana.

The Senate this session has pushed an additional $5 million toward the marketing budget. Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who made the initial motion, said the boost “is necessary. Our competitors do a lot more marketing.”

Amen to that. Now, the final decision rests with the House of Representatives.

Tourism is big business throughout the region, but it’s a hyper-competitive industry. It’s difficult to keep up when other states are making notable commitments to attract visitors.

If tourism is indeed on the verge of a boom, it likely will be in places where people can go on relatively short trips by car that get them away from the crowds. Based on the evidence, investing now in North Dakota travel is a wise decision by the Legislature. Adding importance to it is the dire situation facing so many hotels, convention centers and restaurants throughout the state.

Will House members give final approval? They absolutely should, but we’ll see. It’s a big ask during a time when budgets are tight and many hands are reaching out for financial help in the wake of the pandemic.

Yet we see this as an investment that benefits the entire state, and the many businesses that rely on visitors to keep their doors open.