South Dakota 2020 tourism declined, but industry optimistic

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PIERRE, S.D. — A reduction in visitors and tourism income broke a 10-year streak of industry growth last year, the Department of Tourism reported Thursday, although the state fared better than others during the pandemic.

The number of visitors to South Dakota dropped by 13% in 2020 to 12.6 million, according to an annual study by Tourism Economics. Nevertheless, the industry's annual two-day conference in Pierre was marked with optimism with many companies saying things were not as bad as they could have been.

Some attendees credited Gov. Kristi Noem's decision to forgo many coronavirus restrictions while marketing the state as “open for business,” saying it could result in even better visitor numbers this year.

“The hard work that you did during the darkest days of 2020 will help bring folks back to our state to find the freedom that they’ve been longing to experience for nearly a year,” Noem told the crowd at an awards ceremony Thursday.

Visitors to South Dakota spent $3.4 billion, a decline of 18% from 2019. The Department of Tourism said that wasn't as bad as many other spots across the country, which saw a 45% downturn. Visitor spending contributed $2.6 billion, making up 4.7% of the state's economy.

Epidemiologists blamed massive tourist events such as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally for seeding virus infections across the Midwest. The state also suffered through a surge of virus infections that started in late August and peaked in November, with some of the worst rates in the country.

Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen said his department followed the governor's lead and preached personal responsibility to mitigate the spread of infections.

“The industry took that personal responsibility and the fact that we were open to heart,” Hagen said. “It was their responsibility to keep those visitors safe when they came.”

With the state carving out a reputation for personal liberties and Noem relying on her fame in conservative circles, many tourism businesses felt the industry was ready to come roaring back this year.

Susan Johnson, who operates Black Hills Central Reservations, praised Noem, saying the industry had benefitted from “a nationally recognized celebrity and her message of freedom.”

“What you get is the greatest COVID comeback of any state in this country,” she said.

Stephen Groves, The Associated Press