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'Tourism Congress' discusses the main challenges of the industry

DICKINSON - Improving signage for tourist-based enterprises, recruiting employees for the tourism industry, developing a positive attitude toward tourism in North Dakota and educating everyone on the value of tourism to the state are the main challenges facing the state's number two industry.

So say individuals involved in southwestern North Dakota's tourism industry who participated in Wednesday afternoon's "Tourism Congress" meeting at Dickinson City Hall. The Dickinson gathering was the third of eight planned across the state through March 12.

The North Dakota Tourism Alliance Partnership, the Destination Marketing Association of North Dakota and the North Dakota Department of Commerce Tourism Division are hosting the gatherings to develop initiatives to move the tourism industry forward in the state.

The Dickinson Convention and Visitor's Bureau hosted Wednesday's gathering, where Executive Director Terri Thiel said the last time something like this was done was back in 2000.

"A lot of these things that we come up with today will become very good tools for us," Thiel said of taking the information from the gatherings and compiling it to take before the 2009 Legislature.

She said through meetings such as Wednesday's, the goal is to help develop "a unified voice for the industry."

Tourism Alliance Partnership Executive Director Dana Bohn facilitated the small group discussions that produced the major challenges identified by the regional participants. She then had those in attendance pick the challenge they were most interested in to brainstorm solutions and actions to address the issue.

North Dakota Department of Commerce Tourism Division Director Sara Otte Coleman also attended Wednesday's gathering to listen and give an update on the status of the industry in the state and region.

Coleman said 2006 statistics show tourism remains the second largest industry in the state, contributing $3.8 billion to the economy. She said 2004 domestic traveler spending in North Dakota represented $1.3 billion.

From 2001-2004, the Bureau of Economic Analysis also shows 17 percent growth in North Dakota's visitor spending, which is ahead of the 13.4 percent nationally.

Otte Coleman said the Tourism Division contracted with Global Insight to further examine the tourism industry's impacts in the state. The firm estimated North Dakota's tourism expenditures in 2006 at $2.23 billion.

The firm also found 30,240 jobs existed in 2006 due to the state's tourism industry, paying approximately $733 million in wages and salaries.

Another $368 million in federal, state and local government taxes were generated by tourism in 2006. As a result, Otte Coleman said if the state tourism industry didn't exist, each household would pay $636 more each year in taxes.

From a regional perspective, Stark County ranks sixth of all counties in the state when it comes to tourism expenditures in attracting $78.87 million. Otte Coleman specifically pointed out even Slope County, one of the least populated counties in the country, generated just over $2 million in tourism expenditures, as she said tourism's reach spreads across all parts of the state.

Of the approximately 6 million visitors to the state in 2006, western North Dakota attracted 2.3 million, or about 38 percent. The region is defined as everything located west of U.S. Highway 83 to the Montana border.

Of the 2.3 million people who spent time in the west region, 1.3 million stayed overnight, or 55 percent.

Meanwhile, Otte Coleman reviewed the challenges facing tourism in the state, leading off with image.

"We all know we lack the image we'd like to have out there," she said.

That image issue is reflected in another part of the 2006 study that shows visiting North Dakota is seen as a worry free trip when compared to national norms. Unfortunately, the state falls short in all other categories, including family and adult atmosphere, exciting, unique and others.

Location also remains a major issue for the state as Otte Coleman said, "We aren't located next door to a major metropolitan area."

There also has been limited expansion of the tourism industry in the state, especially in adventure-based enterprises, which are extremely popular.

"Some of that may be attributed to liability insurance," she said.

Retiring tourism operators also are cutting into the declining number of visitor-related enterprises in the state as children are not picking up the business after mom and dad call it quits, especially in such things as bed and breakfast operations.

A lack of resources remains a major issue for the Tourism Division, especially when trying to address image and location issues.

"If they've been exposed to marketing of the state, they have a better image of us," Otte Coleman said.

But getting the dollars needed to expand the marketing effort hasn't been easy, as is reflected by a chart that compares overall tourism marketing expenditures by state.

North Dakota ranks fourth from the bottom in this regard at just $4.1 million for its state tourism budget.

"Our market share hasn't changed much," Otte Coleman said. "When we're competing against people with more resources, it's difficult."

Neighboring South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Minnesota all spend considerably more on tourism. In comparison, Montana spent $10.5 million, South Dakota $10.8 million, Minnesota $11 million and Wyoming $11.7 million. Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island are the three states spending less on tourism budgets than North Dakota.

"The more we market, the more we're going to improve our image," Otte Coleman said.

Increasing the marketing to help improve the state's image leads her list of future potential for tourism in the state. The increase in urban living also has generated an increase in rural interest, while improving overall hospitality will help produce longer stays and repeat visitors.

The weak U.S. dollar also represents a great opportunity for more foreign visitors this year.

"They're expecting record-breaking increases of people coming to the U.S," she said of foreigners capitalizing on the weak dollar here.

She also pointed to the fact that adding tourism infrastructure, including developing visitor packages, provides the industry with more to sell to consumers, especially online.

Getting more national and international media exposure for the state and also capitalizing on the strong outdoor resources we have are keys to developing tourism's future potential, she said.