PIERRE, S.D. • Despite the challenges over the past year caused by the coronavirus pandemic, South Dakota still attracted some 12.6 million visitors in 2020, who in total spent $3.4 billion, according to Gov. Kristi Noem.

Noem, who addressed an in-person and virtual crowd during the South Dakota Governor’s Conference on Tourism on Thursday, Jan. 21, said 2020’s visitors number was a decline of only 13% from the year previous, and cumulative visitor spending was down only 18%.

“A lot of credit goes to all of you,” Noem said, thanking business leaders across the state for helping South Dakota’s tourism industry remain strong. “You fought to create opportunities for your businesses, for your communities and for our state. And while other cities and states estimated visitor spending losses of as much as 50%, South Dakota was able to finish strong.”

The governor also thanked her tourism staff, including Secretary of Tourism Jim Hagen. Noting visitors’ economic contributions to the state, she said: “And in 2020, that was a big win. You're not only outperformed other states, you outperformed industry expectations.”

Spending generated by visitors contributed $2.6 billion in gross domestic product, accounting for 4.7% of the state’s economy.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

The number of people who visited state parks, a total of 8 million for 2020, increased by 31%. Custer State Park alone saw some 2 million visitors, the most it has ever welcomed in a single year.

“Because of all of your efforts,” Noem told the business leaders, “we were able to put more than $3 billion into South Dakota's economy when it was so desperately needed. … Now, in one of the most challenging years our state has ever seen, you're able to keep things rolling. And our state is so thankful that you did this, because now it's clearer than ever that travel matters to South Dakota.”

Other notable numbers according to the state’s economic impact report include hotel occupancy, which averaged 46.3% for the year, surpassing the national average of 44.7%. In total 3.9 million hotel room nights were booked in 2020, and some 883,000 room nights were booked on AirBNB or Homeaway in 2020, a 22.3% increase.

One significant decrease (48%) was airport arrivals, which totaled 408,000 at Sioux Falls and Rapid City Regional Airports.

During her address, Noem presented several awards to recognize those who have made significant contributions in the state, including Secretary Hagen, who received the Ben Black Elk Award.

“Congratulations, Jim,” the governor said. “You do deserve it.”

Hagen and his team also presented a gift for Noem: A framed photo of fireworks over Mount Rushmore.

“That is my favorite photo,” she said. “I want you to know how much I love the people of South Dakota. This is such a special place.”

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 701-780-1276 or aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com