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North Dakota tourism industry watches and waits amid pandemic

North Dakota tourism industry watches and waits amid pandemic

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March visitation to Theodore Roosevelt National Park felt more like June for Park Superintendent Wendy Ross.

More than 800 vehicles per weekend visited Theodore Roosevelt's North and South Units. A Thursday in late March had 42 people at Oxbow Overlook to see the North Unit's Badlands views.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last month suspended park entrance fees. Theodore Roosevelt National Park saw more visitors than its small staff could handle, Ross said. There also was vandalism and toilet paper stolen from vault toilets. 

"It was a very odd time," Ross said.

The park closed this month through May 9 for health and safety and to prepare for summer.

In the days of social distancing amid the pandemic, North Dakota's wide-open spaces present a range of outdoor activities, such as hiking and fishing. Tourism officials are focusing their marketing closer to home, as officials at popular attractions weigh what their summer plans might be.

"Once we reach that comfort point, I think that we are well-positioned to have a good summer," North Dakota Tourism Division Director Sara Otte Coleman said. "It may start a little slower because people are going to wait and see."

Local attention

Tourism is North Dakota's No. 3 industry, comprising $3 billion of visitor spending in 2018, Otte Coleman said. About $300 million of that money was state and local tax revenue.

In previous years, North Dakota tourism campaigns have reached into Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin. Now the marketing will turn more to in-state residents, who already are surging traffic to NDTourism.com, Otte Coleman said. The Tourism Division also will look to cooperate with local entities, such as cities' convention and visitor bureaus.

Some amenities might open in stages as new plans come into place for visitor and staff safety. But some activities seem to come naturally for social distancing, Otte Coleman said.

Fishing, for instance. Hiking trails. Biking the 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail traversing the Badlands, where there is a lot of space to spread out, Otte Coleman said.

Popular park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is North Dakota's top tourist attraction. The park drew 691,000 visitors in 2019 but is closed to May 9 to stem the pandemic's spread as park staff prepare for summer. Staff coming from out-of-state will have to quarantine for 14 days.

The park is likely to open in phases, starting with roads, toilet facilities and some way to provide visitor information to avoid people stacking up, Ross said.

Chief among the plans are to step up cleaning and sanitation and to follow state or federal guidelines on COVID-19 -- whichever are more stringent, she said. 

How to manage campgrounds and the popular Painted Canyon overlook are still being considered. New campground restroom facilities to be completed will be a factor in campgrounds opening, Ross said.

"The camping will be something that I think people are going to be looking for in our public lands," she said. "So getting our campgrounds up to full use, I'm not sure when that might happen."

Nevertheless, 2020 could be a good year for visitation, especially from locals, Ross said. 

'We're going to do everything we can'

The park's popular South Unit is gated at Medora, a tiny town of Old West ambience tied to Roosevelt's legacy ranching and hunting in the Badlands.

Nearby attractions include the Medora Musical, Pitchfork Fondue and Bully Pulpit Golf Course. The musical draws 115,000 to 120,000 people each year in its June-to-September run of shows. Medora visitation is at least double that, said Justin Fisk, marketing director for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.

So far, no plans have been rolled out, he said. The foundation is closely watching Gov. Doug Burgum's "ND Smart Restart" for returning to some semblance of normal activities amid the pandemic. The plan has eight requirements for rebuilding economic activity, including widespread rapid testing, contact tracing and new standard operating procedures for businesses.

"We're planning to be ready to welcome people to Medora for sort of a new-normal kind of experience," Fisk said. "We think people are going to need a place and some opportunities to rejuvenate themselves."

Medora Musical planners are looking at start dates, numbers of shows and seating arrangements, keeping all options open. In February, performers were contracted for the show, which includes about eight Burning Hills Singers, two hosts and a band who perform in an amphitheater in the Badlands.

"We're going to do everything we can to operate it in some fashion, and so if that means a delayed start date, if that means different seating charts, if that means multiple shows per day so that people can stay spread out, we're considering all of those options," Fisk said.

The foundation plans to hire fewer seasonal workers. About 200-225 will be hired this year, down from about 350 typically, including 100-130 work visa holders, Fisk said. The foundation this year won't be hiring J-1 cultural exchange visa holders or bringing in staff from outside the U.S. The foundation has been "recruiting locally more than ever," Fisk said.

Foundation and park officials, Otte Coleman and Medora-area folks held a call on Thursday to discuss summer plans. Fisk said a new survey of past Medora visitors indicated 95% of 2,000 respondents so far planned to travel to the town in the next five months.

'Patient like everyone else'

Up north in the forested Turtle Mountains, the International Peace Garden on the U.S.-Canada border is closed to the public. A big factor in its reopening is restrictions for the border, which is closed to nonessential travel, said Garden CEO Tim Chapman.

Already the International Music Camp at the Garden has postponed its 65th season to summer 2021. 

"We're just going to be patient like everyone else and hope for the best this summer," Chapman said. "No one saw this coming, so you just have to adjust and hope for the best, and when restrictions ease up, we think the garden's going to be one of the best places for people in North Dakota and Manitoba to come visit."

About 35,000 visitors each year see the 25 acres of formal gardens, water features and floral displays on the 49th parallel. Horticultural staff in late May and early June will plant around 50,000 annuals and a few thousand perennials and replacement trees. A cactus and succulent collection is another special feature.

Visitation usually begins to jump by early June.

"We're just kind of trying to take it day by day, week by week, and really just hoping for the best and hoping that as we get closer to summer, things start to ease," Chapman said. 

'A good mental therapy'

Fishing so far has proven to be popular, according to state Fisheries Chief Greg Power.

Game wardens and fishery officials are monitoring angler congestion but haven't seen much trouble, he said. North Dakota has sold about 50,000 resident fishing licenses, about 10,000 more than at this time in 2018 and 2019.

"Keeping fishing open is a good mental therapy for a lot of people," Power said.

But North Dakota's Game and Fish Department did put the kibosh on April and May fishing tournaments and the paddlefish snagging season set for May. Deploying fishing piers also has been delayed. There are concerns shore anglers could congregate in an area if the bite is hot, Power said.

"For the most part, it's open for businesses, and there should not be any real concerns out there as long as everybody does their part," he said.

Memorial Day weekend?

Among the first to open for summer could be North Dakota's state park campgrounds. The campgrounds are closed through May 21.

The state's Parks and Recreation Department will determine by Friday whether to open campgrounds for Memorial Day weekend, when summer travel traditionally kicks off.

In the meantime, parks are open for day use such as hiking and boating. Burgum on Wednesday said state officials are hopeful parks could fully open by Memorial Day weekend. In addition to campgrounds, playgrounds, visitor centers and restroom facilities are closed.

"Again, if we're challenged with continued outbreaks, we may push cancellations out further if decisions are needed," the governor told reporters. 

North Dakota's state parks saw more than 1.1 million visitors in 2019. Most visited was Fort Stevenson State Park near Garrison.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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