What COVID-19 pandemic means for the summer tourism season?

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — This year is anticipated to be a big season for summer tourism in South Dakota: it’s the 80th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, fireworks could be returning to Mount Rushmore for Independence Day and the economy was showing growth. However, a seismic shift from a global pandemic is threatening the tourism industry around the world.

The state’s Secretary of Tourism is making changes to advertising and addressing the pandemic with local tourism entities.

“What does this pandemic mean for tourism in our state? In short, it’s hitting our industry hard, Very hard,” Secretary Jim Hagen wrote in a letter to the tourism industry. “Our country and this industry are made up of millions of small businesses that are facing an unprecedented crisis. Many health and economic experts are telling us that things are going to get worse before they get better.”

The White House’s guidance released this week is to avoid unnecessary travel for 15 days and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a rare notice about travel within the United States. As of Thursday, travel between states is allowed.

President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force, in the Brady press briefing room at the White House, Monday, March 16, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“In South Dakota, we are seeing massive cancellations of events, concerts, hotel accommodations, vacations, social gatherings, reservations of all types, and many other plans,” Hagen said.

It’s a sobering message given just a few weeks ago, the Tourism Department said South Dakota saw a record number of visitors in 2019, marking a 10th straight year of growth within the industry.

The 14.5 million visitors spent $4.1 billion which accounted for more than 5.2% of the state’s total economy. More than 55,000 jobs in the state are supported by the tourism industry.

Oxford Economic Company estimates the industry may not fully recover until 2023.

Few passengers file through the north security checkpoint in Denver International Airport as travelers deal with the spread of coronavirus Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Denver. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The unknowns of COVID-19 remains a large problem, especially how long it will last and the total economic impact on the United States and the globe.

“I won’t sugarcoat things,” Hagen said. “Things are probably going to get even tougher before they get better. We may be talking months of a new “normal” that will feel surreal.”

Hagen said he is concerned about both small and large tourism businesses, the workers, the budgets of his agency and the other partners.

“We are being proactive in cutting our spending where we can and where it makes sense while planning for longer-term hits to our funding. It’s the wise and prudent thing to do,” Hagen said.

The department has been shifting the messaging on out-of-state marketing. Instead of focusing on getting people to visit now, Hagen said it’s taking a different approach.

“We are not hard-selling our state. Instead, we are simply promoting a loftier, inspirational message,” Hagen said.

People will now see outdoor images, focused on getting them to think about what comes after this pandemic.

The department is also making changes on a dime, as more happens, and working to make sure the tourism site is up-to-date with cancellations.

“If consumers begin tuning us out because of any new developments with the virus, we’ll adjust our marketing,” Hagen said. “Our web traffic has dropped about 30%, but our goal conversion rate is up because people coming to the website are serious about planning.”

Planning is what will get the department through this, Hagen told the industry. He believes there will be a big rebound as soon as things get better, similar to the H1N1 influenza outbreak.

Hagen also points to research that road trips will fare well, once the pandemic slows and that’s good for South Dakotans.

As for the 2020 season, what will happen is a big question mark.

As of now, the 80th Sturgis Rally is still scheduled to start on August 7.

“The City of Sturgis is closely monitoring developments to determine how best to assist our Rally goers with the best information possible,” the Rally organizers said.

City of Sturgis Public Information Officer Christina Steele said they are still signing contracts and booking talent.

“We are not even at a point of discussing canceling the Rally,” Steele said. “Since we are 5 months out, we are optimistic that there is plenty of time for this virus to peak, subside and end prior to the Rally. We, as well as most area businesses and our visitors, are all hoping for the best.”

The fireworks at Mount Rushmore still aren’t officially approved. There are still several days left for public comments about an environmental review.

KELOLAND News reached out to the Department of Interior, the National Park Service and Mount Rushmore National Monument. We will update this story when we hear more.

The department is encouraging its partners to have a flexible cancellation policy or rebooking option.

Right now, the National Park Service is leaving it up to each individual park on how to handle based on CDC guidelines, but according to a statement, it is “modifying operations until further notice for facilities and programs that cannot adhere to this guidance. Where it is possible to adhere to this guidance, outdoor spaces will remain open to the public.”

National Park Service

As of Thursday afternoon, here is the latest at the state’s national parks, according to each park’s website:

Open

  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial
  • Missouri National Recreational River

Partially Closed

  • Badlands National Park: Entrance stations, visitor centers, and suspended all interpretive programs. Roads and trails remain open at this time.
  • Jewel Cave: Restrooms and hiking trails will remain open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to provide healthy options for the public, but the visitor center is closed. Cave tours weren’t scheduled to begin until May.
  • Minuteman Missle National Historic Site: Delta-01 tours will be suspended through April 21, 2020. The visitor center remains open.
  • Wind Cave: The park visitor center is closed through April 15. Cave tours haven’t been happening since last year due to an elevator problem, which is still not fixed. Park roads, hiking trails, and the Elk Mountain campground remain open at this time.

State Parks

  • State Park offices are closed
  • The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks is still taking camping reservations. However, GF&P said they will be in touch with reservation holders if changes happen
  • The Outdoor Campus buildings are closed, but the trails and outdoor sections remain open

Tourism destinations

“We South Dakotans are tough,” Hagen said. “We are a resilient country, a resilient state, and a resilient industry. In time—hopefully sooner rather than later—our day-to-day lives will return to normal patterns, and visitors will start crossing our borders in large numbers to experience our Great Faces and Great Places.”

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