Amid budget cuts, Gov. Doug Burgum is urging the state tourism industry to be creative in its marketing and promotion.
“It’s not a bigger budget; it’s better ideas,” he said about improvements to the industry during a press conference announcing the results of the state’s most recent tourism industry study.
About 21.9 million people visited North Dakota in 2015, spending about $3.1 billion.
These numbers “did dip a little bit,” compared to visitation during oil boom years, said Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman.
The drop matched the decline in the state's economy resulting from lowered crude oil prices, but the study conducted by Tourism Economics showed tourism’s growth — 25 percent over the past five years — is outpacing that of other state industries.
“Tourism is an integral and significant part of the North Dakota economy,” said Tourism Economics economist Adam Sacks. “It’s big business .… It’s important to the economy in so many different ways.”
In fact, it is the state’s third largest industry. It generates 5.8 percent of state and local taxes and brought in $327 million in revenue in 2015.
Of the revenues, visitors spent nearly 30 percent on food, 21.6 percent on retail and nearly 13 percent on recreation. The industry also accounts for 7.5 percent of jobs in state.
“We could be entering the golden age of tourism in our state,” Burgum said, pointing to opportunities presented by more young people and more attractions in the state than ever before. He linked tourism directly to workforce development and a thriving tourism industry’s ability to attract more new residents.
Yet, like many other departments, the Tourism Division is facing budget cuts — $3 million in this case — a big difference considering North Dakota spends very little on its tourism program compared to other states.
“We have to get our tech game up as it relates to tourism,” Burgum offered as one suggestion for improving the industry in the state.
He said he would like to see Uber, a ride-share mobile phone application, in all cities with commercial airline service in the state.
Burgum also made suggestions, such as increasing North Dakotans' participation on websites such as VRBO and Airbnb, which allow homeowners to lease their homes to travelers, as potential tourism drivers that would not require legislative action or a budget item.
Otte Coleman said her department has done a lot over the years to get the most out of its limited budget. To help city tourism entities with promotions, the state department has created a cooperative program, cutting costs by sharing its promotional resources.
Sacks is giving an in-depth presentation to lawmakers on tourism's impact and Otte Coleman said she's hopeful it will show that, over time, investment in the industry can can help grow and diversify the state's economy.