SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) – Sluggish demand fueled South Dakota’s 2021 tourism season as the state hit $4.4 billion in visitor spending and $345 million in state sales tax collections.
The numbers posted so far this year are unlikely to make it past 2021. But when compared to a pre-COVID-19 pandemic year of 2019, they compare well. The numbers also show that a region doesn’t need a National Monument or a large state park to attract visitors.
“2019 was kind of a normal year,” said Kasi Haberman, executive director of the Southeast Dakota Tourism Association. “For 2020 and 2021, it’s not very good to compare them to this year.”
The 2020 tourist season was generally hampered by COVID-19 across the country as it changed people’s travel plans and many activities or events were canceled or postponed. South Dakota had visitors in 2020 boosted, in part, because it had no statewide mandates or uniform policies for COVID-19 and was considered more open than other states with statewide policies or mandates.
The big increase in 2021 was due to pent-up travel demand, said Jim Hagen, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Tourism.
“Compared to 2019, our numbers were pretty strong during the peak season,” Hagen said. Spending has increased this year by 10% to 11% this year, but Hagen said that because inflation drove up prices, the actual spending increase is about 1% to 2% compared to last year.
Park visits were 1.7 million in July 2019 and 1.8 million in July 2022.
In July 2019, about $2.2 million in tax revenue was generated compared to $2.4 million in July 2022.
Tax revenue is critical to the state’s general fund budget. More than 60% of the state’s revenue for fiscal year 2022 was sales and use taxes. Revenue from tourism taxes is part of this.
Hagen said money spent by visitors, even state residents traveling within the state, helps pay for roads and services in South Dakota.
Haberman said businesses in the Southeast tourism region are using 2019 as a benchmark for this year.
There is no Mount Rushmore or Custer State Park
State tourism highlights road trips, cultural and historical sites and more on its website and marketing.
But how does a tourist region fare when it only has one of the Big 8 in its backyard?
Very well, if the southeastern region of South Dakota is any indication.
Data from the state’s monthly tourism dashboard says that as of July 31, Minnehaha County had $616,586,000 in visitor revenue.
Yankton County had $38,157,786. Yankton County has the Missouri River and Lake Lewis and Clark, but Haberman said camping in that area decreased in 2022 from 2021. The Missouri River is one of the Big 8.
By July 31, revenue from the two top western tourism counties: $456,834,339 in Pennington County and $172,479,542 in Lawrence County is needed to pass the revenue to Minnehaha County.
“(Black) Hill brings visitors from a greater radius. People looking for those iconic attractions,” Haberman said. “It could be somebody’s summer vacation staple.”
The Yankton County area attracts repeat visitors who love fishing and water recreation and camping, Haberman said.
“If you look at Sioux Falls, it’s very activity-driven,” Haberman said.
Hagen said there’s no question that regions around the state, including southeastern South Dakota, are attracting visitors.
“What we’re seeing in the eastern part of the state is year-over-year growth,” Hagen said.
The return of sporting events, conventions, concerts and the like contribute to this growth, he said.
“It’s exciting,” Hagen said of the interest in eastern South Dakota. “We’ll have to look at the numbers for a few years to see if there’s some kind of trend.”
Tourism marketing campaigns, including the Create the Highlighted Arts and Culture Passport program, were launched today, August 24, to encourage domestic and international travelers to visit sites around the state.
Why some decline in the tourist season this year
As peak tourism approached in South Dakota, tourism officials took notice of gas prices and inflation.
Hagen said inflation and high gas prices caused some cancellations of camping reservations and changed other types of trips for visitors.
The tourism department’s dashboard of performance indicators from January 1 to July 31 showed that park visits were down 4.3% during that period compared to the same time in 2021. For July alone, room nights, hotel occupancy, airport arrivals, total visits, visitor spending and tax revenue are all down compared to 2021.
As of August 22, tax revenues were down 21.4% from 2021 while total visits were down 19.2%.
With Labor Day weekend and fall tourism ahead, Hagen said, “We’re feeling better than we were going into peak season.”
Haberman said the fall usually means the return of a particular type of campground because it’s less busy. A beautiful fall will increase the number of campers.
Further north in the region, a good pheasant hunting season will also help visitor revenues, she said.
Hagen said in talks with GFP officials about the pheasant hunting season, “We’re feeling good about it.”
Unless you have one of the 54,000 jobs the state said were created by tourism, the drop in tourism revenue is still significant.
Without tourism, each family in the state would have paid $980 more in taxes in 2021, according to the state.
“So most of the 2021 season was centered around the Black Hills,” Hagen said. “It was bursting at the seams.”
KELOLAND’s Sydney Thorson reported on Aug. 19 that businesses in the Rapid City area saw a drop in tourism for 2022. But they also said 2021 was an exceptionally good year for tourism.
If numbers are down slightly in the Black Hills region in 2022 from 2021, it’s not a surprise, Hagen said.
But, Haberman said, Game Fish and Parks officials in her region have noticed fewer campers than in 2021.
“The (numbers) camps have been astronomical since the start of COVID and it’s slowed down a little bit,” Haberman said.