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The Little Missouri River winds through the Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park's North Unit south of Watford City on Thursday.

State tourism off to slow start; industry hoping for good summer season

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BISMARCK -- Medora Mayor Doug Ellison says all indicators point to a good tourism season this summer.

Since Memorial Day, the unofficial summer kickoff weekend, he said the number of visitors through the small western town that boasts the Medora Musical and historic old-west look, has been steady, and that's with many rainy days and two weeks before the musical was set to open Friday night.

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"So far, the traffic is encouraging," he said. "April into May is typically a gradual buildup, and then there's a large boom once the musical starts up."

Ellison and his wife, Mary, said the town is ready for the boom as the musical kicks off this weekend.

State Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman is hopeful for yet another busy tourist season.

"We're optimistic the year is going to be a good one for us," she said, as the tourism department is pushing hard to promote the extra hotels that have opened recently. She said lodging was an issue for travelers the past few years.

The tourism department's quarterly report for January, February and March 2013 found the number of visitors to the state parks was down by 10,000 compared to the first quarter in 2012. Likewise, national park visits were down 13 percent and major attractions saw 83,000 fewer visitors than the beginning of last year.

But tourism in the first quarter of 2012 was up significantly over the previous year, and last year had the benefit of a much earlier spring warm-up than 2013.

According to the tourism department's 2012 annual report, North Dakota saw 17.2 million visitors, with the number of visitors to the state's major attractions up 7 percent from 2011 with 4.5 million visitors. That includes a 13 percent increase to the number of national park visitors with 677,000, and 102,685 stopped at local visitor centers, a 9 percent increase from 2011.

Coleman said as last year's numbers showed tremendous growth, it's always going to be a challenge to draw more visitors into the state than the previous year.

She said more people are aware of North Dakota than ever before because of the oil boom, "and that's going to fare well for us," she said about this year.

"The big thing we have is a value-based vacation. There are so many things you can do that don't cost a lot of money and it's a more genuine experience," she said. "You're not going to feel like you're at a tourist trap anywhere in North Dakota."

The Ellisons, who also run a bookstore and inn, said most people who travel to Medora go for the musical and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which has its entrance just outside Medora.

"It's just gorgeous now with the green spring," Mary Ellison said about the park.

Others just use the town to stop for a break since it's a mile off Interstate 94.

Jim and Rose Conrad of Columbus, Ohio, stopped at the national park's South Unit information center in Medora on Monday -- a quick stop they often make to stretch their legs when they visit family in Bozeman, Mont.

"It's the Badlands, the green landscape and natural beauty, there's nothing like it," Rose Conrad said about stopping in the park.

"We like birds and the big mammals, we want to become one with nature," her husband said while holding a book about birds.

The park is open year round, but officially kicked off its summer season June 1.

Divided into three parts, the park boasts more than 70,000 acres and includes Elkhorn Ranch built by President Theodore Roosevelt, who would travel back to North Dakota to take in the outdoors.

Oil field tourism

Coleman said they often hear from people planning trips to the state a general curiosity about the oil boom.

"There's a small percentage that have their concerns, but there are some people that it has piqued their interest and given them reason to get to the western part of the state," she said.

Two companies are capitalizing on this general interest in the oil industry.

Jeff Zarling, president of Dawa Solutions Group, a graphic design and Web development firm in Williston, said to understand the oil development, "you have to see it to believe it."

That's why his company is in its second year of providing tours around the oil fields.

The Bakken Field Tour by Dawa Solutions was born after the company trucked investors around during the 2011 Bakken investor conference in Minot.

Afterward, the company began receiving so many requests for tours, it had to develop the scheduled tour concept.

During its inaugural year, the tour saw more than 250 tourists and community and business leaders during six tours, catching Zarling by surprise.

"People were very receptive to it last year," he said. "I was surprised by the number of people that participated and the spectrum of people that participated."

He said people from all over the United States and countries such as Germany and Australia took part in the tour.

This summer, the company has eight tours. Two already took place in May, drawing in about 20 people. Tours start in Williston or Dickinson.

Former North Dakota Tourism Director Joe Satrom is also taking visitors around the Oil Patch through his travel company, Satrom Travel & Tour.

The North Dakota Energy Tour is a four-day tour that departs Fargo on July 11, and travels to Minot and Medora, with key stops around western North Dakota energy and tourism hot spots.

Satrom said he already has taken more than 250 people around the Oil Patch on a private tour or through his company, and this year's trip is already full.

"Visitors are impressed with the thousands of people coming to work here and oil and gas development," Satrom said.

Now that the industry has developed, Coleman said oil and tourism go hand in hand.

From a tourism development standpoint, she said there needs to be a balance as resources are developed with keeping the pristine nature of the landscape.

"As visitors come out and explore that, they realize that balance is in existence," she said. "That it's all working OK, and once the buzz dies down we probably aren't going to see anymore concerns."

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Mike Nowatzki
Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.
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