Gas prices, inflation bear brunt of blame for dip in South Dakota tourism numbers
RAPID CITY, S.D. — South Dakota’s second-largest industry – tourism – is seeing a dip from the record high in 2021, but it’s still going strong.
“It’s been an interesting season,” said Jim Hagen, South Dakota’s Secretary of Tourism. “So, we’re coming off of 2021 – that was absolutely crazy – and I think this year we’re seeing a little bit of what I would call ‘evening-out’ of tourism.”
The South Dakota Department of Tourism reported record-breaking numbers for the 2021 season, with visitation up over 26% and 13.5 million people visiting the state. Due to the pandemic, state revenue jumped 30%, from $3.3 billion to $4.4 billion from 2020 to 2021, and was up 6% from a “normal” (non-pandemic) year. A National Park Service report showed that 3.6 million people visited Black Hills area national parks, spending more than $230 million, which contributed to 3,362 jobs and more than $300 million in benefit to the state economy. All that despite uncertainty for businesses that struggle to find labor.
Open for business during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, South Dakota became the destination to visit, but as restrictions lifted and worldwide travel resumed, the state has to once again compete for business.
“So there’s a little bit more competition now, right? States are open, other countries…you can get on airplanes and go places, so I think competition is impacting our market just a little bit this year,” said Brook Kaufman, CEO of Visit Rapid City. “The other thing is some of the Yellowstone [stuff].”
Kaufman and Hagen both say the natural disaster in Yellowstone had an impact on tourism in the region, but gas prices and rising inflation take most of the blame.
In mid-June, historic flooding swept through the Yellowstone area. An “atmospheric river,” which is a system of extremely warm and wet air that typically originates in the Tropics, brought two- to three-inches of rain and warm overnight temperatures, melting massive amounts of snowpack.
According to streamgage monitoring by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Yellowstone River reached almost 14 feet at Corwin Springs, which is two-and-a-half feet higher than the previous record flood event in June 1918. To put the flooding into perspective, the water flowing through the gage between June 11 and June 15 would fill more than 100,000 Olympic swimming pools.
Some communities in western Montana and Wyoming were completely cut off by flood waters. Parts of the park were closed indefinitely as crews worked to repair roads and bridges. As of now, approximately 93% of paved roads and 94% of Yellowstone’s backcountry is open.
Hagen says visitor spending is up, but not at the same rate as total visitation, something that matches what they’ve been trying to do for a while.
“It’s great to set record numbers every year like, ‘oh, we brought this many millions of visitors in,’ but really, our goal is to find a better quality of visitor, someone who will stay longer [and] spend more money,” Hagen says.
Between the famous faces and popular places, Kaufman says Rapid City is a true tourist destination – something the wider world is starting to realize.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of families, a lot more tourists from outside the Midwest,” said Billi DeRudder, General Manager of the Hotel Alex Johnson. “Last year, we saw a lot of Midwesterners that drove here; this year we’re seeing a lot more flights coming in.”
Those tourists, DeRudder says, are praising the area’s livability and appeal.
“‘We want to move here;’ we get a lot of that. We get a lot of, ‘we love it here…everyone’s been really nice,'” DeRudder said. “You know, we are – we’re Midwest nice.”