FARGO — When travelers across the country tell others they’re from North Dakota, the response from those people is often that they've never been here.
Well, many have.
The most recent statistics from the North Dakota tourism division show there were 22 million tourists or visitors in 2015 spending $3.1 billion, making it the third largest industry in the state.
Tourism Division Director Sara Otte Coleman said it's "very true" that people say they haven't visited here, but she would like to see the tourist numbers increase.
Dannielle Riley, who is a visitor experience manager for the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau and last month won a top state tourism award for her "behind-the-scenes" work, said the organization has taken the "never been to North Dakota" thought and turned it into a positive.
The "Best for Last Club" was recently created because of how often staff members of the organization heard from travelers that North Dakota was the last of the 50 states they visited.
As a member of the club, the tourists are given a certificate, T-shirt and have their photo taken.
Coleman said that tag makes the state "more exotic and a more interesting location to visit because it's not your standard place where everybody goes first."
"It's kind of like bragging rights that we are the 50th state they have visited," she said.
However, the state is not the least visited, Coleman said.
The beauty of the tourism industry, she said — unlike the top two commodity-price driven industries of agriculture and oil — is that it is seeing "slow, steady, consistent growth that is contributing to the state's economy."
"It's a great balancer," she said.
She's proud to point out during "North Dakota Travel and Tourism Week" being celebrated this week that 2,900 tourism businesses are spread across the state in both cities and rural areas. The historic, cultural and entertainment venues to visit are too many to mention, she said, but is lead by the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the far western part of the state.
"The state is not about one big attraction, though," Coleman, the leader in the division for 16 years, said. Instead, she said the experiences and options are widespread. As examples she pointed out that birders might not realize there are 63 wildlife refuges in the state, hikers might not know the extent of trails or that North Dakota has the country's largest national grassland.
The economic impact is immense. The tourism division's last research showed the industry contributes $3.1 billion to the state's economy, while an NDSU research team that has since disbanded showed a higher $5.46 billion contribution, which Coleman said resulted from some cross-border shopping revenue in the mix.
Coleman hopes to find a new research team that can provide updated visitor numbers and spending for 2018, but she strongly believes the numbers are climbing when they look at hotel and resort occupancy rates, inquiries and phone calls, to name a few of the metrics they examine.
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Riley also believes the numbers are climbing.
"I think that each year we are seeing more and more people choosing Fargo-Moorhead for their vacation whether it's because they are looking for somewhere new to go, or they're just learning more about how cool it is and so much is going on and it's changing their perceptions of the area," she said.
"One interesting thing we hear all of the time is that Fargo is way different than they expected it to be. People are still amazed that it doesn't look just like the movie and that the cities are so large," Riley said.
A new initiative the organization has started is an "I AM Fargo-Moorhead" training program to help front-line tourism employees become an information ambassador for the area and better serve customers. Riley said the program includes one hour of classroom time and a two-hour bus tour around the three cities to see major attractions with a guide giving history and information about the area. She said 30 people from hotels, attractions and the Jet Center were in the first class on April 25. Another training will be May 22 with 45 spots available.
For Coleman, a 14-year veteran of leading the division, it's a struggle financially with lean budgets provided by the state Legislature. She said the North Dakota tourism budget is one-third of neighboring Minnesota or South Dakota.
With a slight increase this year, she said "we have to make up for it with creativity and passion."
One of the big successes lately has been using television and movie actor Josh Duhamel, a native of Minot, in its advertising campaign.
She said Duhamel, "a natural ambassador for the state," will be in more ads this year that have been refreshed and added to with the state's slightly changed brand called "Be Legendary" that replaces the "North Dakota: Legendary" brand that started in 2001.
She said his contribution has had a "significant benefit" to tourism in the state.
His partnership with the state has been a "smart move with a high payback."
That should help translate into a "great and growing" tourism season, Coleman said.
Key tourism milestones
Tourism Division Director Sara Otte Coleman said the celebration of some key milestones this year should also boost tourism in the state this summer.
The events include:
- The Fargo Marathon's 15th anniversary on May 13-18
- Maah Daah Hey Trail's 20th anniversary in Medora on June 1
- Fort Seward Wagon Train's 50th anniversary in Jamestown on June 23-3
- The Mandan Rodeo's 140th anniversary on July 2-4
- The Custer House's 30th anniversary in Mandan on July 6
- The Family Motor Coach Association's 100th convention in Minot on Aug. 14-17
- The United Tribes International Powwow's 50th anniversary in Bismarck on Sept. 6-8
- Red River Zoo's 20th anniversary in Fargo on Sept. 20
- Wahpeton's 150th anniversary with events all year