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Our view: Experiential tourism the way forward

On Sept. 8, the rock group Metallica played the Alerus Center and drew an attendance of 16,970. It was one of the largest concerts ever in Grand Forks. For four days in September, the unique Cirque du Soleil musical "Crystal" performed at the Ral...

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On Sept. 8, the rock group Metallica played the Alerus Center and drew an attendance of 16,970. It was one of the largest concerts ever in Grand Forks.

For four days in September, the unique Cirque du Soleil musical "Crystal" performed at the Ralph Engelstad Arena, adding some artsy culture to the mix.

Keith Urban played a concert at the Ralph last week. On a Sunday evening during the school year and sandwiched between all sorts of local events, the country music star packed the house.

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Friday, 1980s star Rick Springfield will perform at the Alerus Center.

In a span of roughly six weeks, Grand Forks will have hosted four concerts - greatly ranging in genres - that will have drawn thousands of visitors to town.

Those music events don't include those who gathered for UND hockey, football or volleyball. They also don't include the huge crowd that converged on Grand Forks for the combined Potato Bowl/homecoming festivities in September.

Nor do they include the massive Wild Hog Grand Forks Marathon, or various events held at the Empire Arts Center, the Chester Fritz Auditorium or elsewhere.

The point?

Grand Forks has plenty to offer visitors, and these offerings are helping the community combat otherwise stagnant sales tax numbers.

Sunday, the Herald reported that spending in local bars and restaurants is up this year . Since Grand Forks has a quarter-percent tax on prepared food, on-sale beverages and lodging, it's easy to track the trend, which is up 10.74 percent over last year. That is bucking a national trend, which shows that as retail sales have slowed, it has been accompanied by a drop-off in spending in bars and restaurants.

The numbers also help counterbalance some disturbing data from September that showed second-quarter taxable sales in North Dakota were up by 10 percent but down 11.75 percent in Grand Forks.

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So according to hard data and all sorts of anecdotal evidence, Grand Forks is seeing a decrease in traditional retail tourism, thanks to the Canadian-U.S. exchange rate and the closing of important stores in the city. Yet the city's tourism is getting a boost via its increase in experiential tourism - specifically those great events that continue to come to Grand Forks.

Julie Rygg, executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted how the city has been "incredibly busy" and credited the busy schedules of the Alerus Center and Ralph Engelstad Arena.

Grand Forks isn't blessed with traditional tourism opportunities. Moving forward, that doesn't really matter, since experiential tourism can be based on just about anything beyond typical sightseeing.

It's good to know that Grand Forks, perhaps more than any city its size in the region, is capitalizing on a trend that we are convinced is not a fad. Credit is due to the local venues, as well as those who are promoting these great events in the city.

Yes, experiential tourism is helping save the day in Grand Forks, and it should continue to be the focus in the future.

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