Affordable and experiential: Regional tourism departments share what they’re expecting in 2023

Across the country, 2023 is expected to be the year most states reach pre-pandemic levels of visitors. The pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, and people want to travel. Tourism experts in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota expect a big year.

Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area received “dark sky” designation in 2020, meaning they both offer views of the night sky free from light pollution. They are the only sites in the three-state region to receive the designation. (Erik Fremstad via Explore Minnesota)
Erik Fremstad

South Dakota’s tourism department set records in 2019, as 14.5 million people visited the Black Hills, Badlands National Park, Falls Park in Sioux Falls and many sites in between.

The state’s Department of Tourism expected nothing less going into 2020, but we all know what happened next.

COVID-19 canceled vacations and kept people from making grand travel plans, and visitor numbers fell 13% from the previous year, though it was far worse in other parts of the country.

Visitors returned to South Dakota in 2021, as the state became the first in the nation to reach pre-pandemic levels of travel, according to the U.S. Travel Association. By 2022, visitor spending reached a record $4.4 billion, and 14.4 million people visited the state, just shy of the 2019 record.

“We very quickly recovered,” South Dakota Department of Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen said. “Part of that was our great outdoor offerings. The American public just wanted to get outside.”


And South Dakota, with its “open for business” mantra shouted from the rooftops by Gov. Kristi

Noem, became a top destination.

Across the country, 2023 is expected to be the year most states reach pre-pandemic levels of visitors. The pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, and people want to travel. Tourism experts in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota expect a big year.

Though there remains one wrinkle: A sluggish economy is expected to shorten trips and keep people closer to home to save money. All three states are ready and making their pitches to prospective tourists.

From a boom in agritourism to the promotion of unique experiences, here are the trends that the regional experts are seeing heading into the summer travel season:

Economy, inflation could impact length of stays

Visitors to Minnesota can experience the swans at Swan Park in Monticello, the SPAM museum in Austin and the Como Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul all without spending a dime.

Explore Minnesota promotes free things to do in the state on its website, knowing that cost- conscious travelers are looking for activities that won’t break the bank.

It’s especially important this year, experts say, because a down economy, inflation and high gas prices are likely going to affect how people travel.


While a study of 1,000 U.S. adults by Longwood and Miles showed that 52% agree or strongly agree that inflation will affect their travel decisions this summer, 92% said they will travel.

The regional state tourism departments say that means many tourists will be driving instead of flying, reduce their stay times and look for cheaper lodging.

“There is overall concern about inflation pressures, however, the desire to travel is still strong,” Explore Minnesota Communications Director Amy Barrett said. “Minnesota has a reputation as an affordable destination.”

Sara Otte Coleman, director of tourism and marketing for North Dakota Department of Commerce, said people are waiting to book closer to their travel times in hopes of finding better deals. She said another trend is more travelers are adding vacation time to their business trips and experiencing the state more.

“North Dakota experiences are affordable, experiential and offer a strong value,” she said. “We also market road trips in regional markets that are more resilient in economic downturns.”

Otte Coleman pointed to a recent report by Google that searches for day trips have grown 70%. “People are thinking, ‘What can we do closer to home that exposes us to something new and different?’” she said.

North Dakota Sunflowers
North Dakota promoted a “sunflower trail” map last summer on its website that encouraged visitors to take in the sunflower blooms, and some farmers offered visitors free seeds in mailboxes. The page received more hits than the homepage in the month of August. (North Dakota Department of Tourism)

More travelers looking for agriculture experience

Travelers have always used vacations as a chance to get away, but agritourism has shot up in popularity over the past few years as vacationers look to leave the city lights and experience the serenity and beauty of rural life firsthand.


It’s a way for rural property owners to supplement their income and showcase their land and give visitors an up-close look at ranching, farming or just the beauty of nature.

Pipestem Creek Bed and Birding near Carrington, North Dakota, lures visitors with “rare bird” sightings, tours of private gardens and the experiences of life on a rural, small grains farm.

The Scanlan family opened its acreage southwest of Rochester, Minnesota as a learning farm experience” where visitors can climb in the silo, jump on straw bales and visit their barnyard animals.

The South Dakota Department of Tourism is aiming to capitalize on the growth in the sector by teaming up with South Dakota State University Extension to help rural property owners get into the sector.

The two-year program aims to provide “the tools and skills needed to develop a successful agritourism enterprise.” The program includes eight two-day workshops and visits to other locations in the area to help provide applicants with inspiration. In 2021 and 2022, the group visited agritourism farms and ranches in Nebraska and North Dakota, including Pipestem Creek.

Barrett said Minnesota business owners are trying to diversify experiences even further. At a recent conference, she said she met with an agritourism business that is offering guests a chance to enjoy pizza on a blanket on the farm that’s made by ingredients that were grown on the property.

“There are places you can stay overnight at the farm,” she said. “For someone who has never had that experience, that can be an exciting and relaxing way to spend time in the country. There is a lot of interest in expanding those opportunities. There is an increased interest in immersing yourself in the local culture, supporting local business and having an authentic experience.”

Otte Coleman said North Dakota visitors are increasingly looking for agritourism destinations that offer more than formal tours and ride-alongs.


“What we are finding is people don’t necessarily want organized activities,” she said. “They just want the idea of meeting people that produce their food and getting out and experiencing farms and ranches. … Farm stays are growing in popularity.”

She said the North Dakota tourism department capitalized on visitor interest in sunflower blooms every summer by providing a resource page and map for where to see the best blooms. The page, which was more popular than the North Dakota tourism homepage in the month of August, includes weekly bloom reports. Some farmers on the route put up mailboxes where visitors could get a free sample of seeds.

“Those are the things that are organic and attract people to our state as something different,” she said.

6th Meridian Hop Farm in Yankton offers a summer schedule of beer, food and concerts and a chance to see where the hops are grown. (Travel South Dakota)

It’s all about the experience

Travelers are increasingly looking for unique offerings that they can’t find where they live, according to the regional travel experts. And millennials, those currently in the 27-42 age range and a large segment of the travel market, are looking for things that are authentically local – including food and beverages.

In Minnesota, that could mean eating dinner at Owamni — the 2022 James Beard winner for Best New Restaurant — visiting the Minnesota State Fair or sampling one of the many breweries in the Twin Cities.

Owamni by the Sioux Chef in Minneapolis won the James Beard award for best new restaurant in 2022. The bison entree is pictured. (John Yuccas via Meet Minneapolis)

The South Dakota Tourism Department unveiled a “Great Finds” campaign in 2022 that aimed to showcase the hidden gems of the state. Visitors were encouraged to share their photos using the #SDGreatFinds hashtag for a chance to win prizes, and the state’s tourism website promoted experiences that locals swear by, such as the Faulkton grain elevator mural.

“It’s an effort to take visitors off the beaten path,” Hagen said.


Getting outside and away from the city lights became especially popular during the pandemic, and interest hasn’t slowed.

Voyageurs National Park and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota recently received “dark sky” designation, meaning it’s among the best places in the country to see the stars without light pollution. They are the only sites to receive the designation in the three-state region.

“That is something really special worth traveling for in Minnesota,” Barrett said.

Both North Dakota and South Dakota have seen a burgeoning market for tourism to reservations so visitors can experience the tradition and history of Native Americans in a way that contributes to the tribe’s economy.

The North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance was formed in 2016 to help the five tribal nations in the state promote tourism and “facilitate the development of cultural tourism enterprises.”

Kids get a first-hand look at Native American regalia during the Fort Sisseton Heritage Festival. (Travel South Dakota)

“There are a lot of really interesting, unique experiences (on the reservations),” Otte Coleman said. “That is one of the things that our global audiences is most interested in.”

South Dakota’s Native Tourism Alliance formed a couple of years after North Dakota’s, but the goal is similar.

Hagen said the alliance puts together suggested itineraries and promotes events and different cultural offerings from the tribes, with the goal of visitors spending time on the specific reservations.


Regional states unveil summer travel marketing themes

When it comes to travel marketing, a few words can mean a lot. That’s why travel departments spend a lot of time coming up with a catchy campaign that tugs at the heart and appeals to people to experience their state.

Here are the three current marketing campaigns for South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota travel departments:

  •  “So Much South Dakota, So Little Time”: Hagen said he is constantly told by visitors that they are surprised by just how much there is to do in the state. He says he is told people have wished they would have allotted more time to stay. “We love that the state is surprising them when they get here and it is so much more than what they expected.”
  • “Enter your dream state.” (Minnesota): The theme, which was unveiled in 2022, embraces the idea that vacation stories get grander every time they are told, whether it be catching a big fish at a Minnesota lake or seeing the moon fill the entire sky at a state park. “The magic of the moment can sometimes be hard to put into words. After you take a trip, the memory of your trip gets more extravagant every time you think about it,” Barrett said. “There is a lot of magic in travel and a lot of wonder. … And it’s about entering your dream state when you travel in Minnesota.”
  • “Hello North Dakota”: The state’s new theme embraces the friendliness of its residents and the fact that a lot of potential visitors don’t know much about what the state has to offer. “We haven’t spent a ton of money educating people with what we have,” Otte Coleman said. “Hello, this is North Dakota. Come see us. We have super friendly people who are here to welcome you.”
What To Read Next
Get Local