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Talk focuses on boosting region's nature tourism

DICKINSON - To draw more outdoors-minded travelers and their money to southwest North Dakota, local businesses should create tour packages featuring iconic attractions, like the Badlands.

That's what Jeremy Garrett, founder of the tourism consulting firm NaTour, told a crowd Wednesday at the third of four events in the Strom Entrepreneurship Conference series held at Dickinson State University's Strom Center.

"You're already getting a third of the state's visitors, and you can increase that number," Garrett said.

He urged listeners, some of who expressed interest in starting or improving their own tourism ventures, to market the Badlands.

"If you don't know anything about North Dakota, you've probably heard of the Badlands. I would latch onto that icon and ride it out of town," Garrett said.

His talk dealt with what he called "experiential travel," which he said includes eco-tourism, agri-tourism, adventure tourism and cultural heritage tourism. He said southwest North Dakota has almost everything it needs to attract visitors seeking those types of experiences.

"The one thing that I think is lacking is high-quality interpretation," Garrett said.

He talked about how guides can enhance a trip and how they make a tourist's visit easier. Package deals also, he said, can relieve the stress of traveling and can extend a tourist's stay.

"People will come for a three-to-four-day package. You're looping it together for them," Garrett said.

Another challenge is overcoming the perception that North Dakota is a "cold, barren landscape with little to see or do," his presentation stated.

A study by the North Dakota Tourism Division released last year said that, of the state's 6 million visitors, 2.3 million spent time in the western half of the state. Fifty-five percent of those stayed overnight and 45 percent passed through; 41 percent came to go touring and 23 percent visited for outdoors activities, the study showed. Most of the tourists held white-collar jobs and had graduated from college.

"These are great statistics. These are the type of people you want to attract," Garrett said.

Tourism and agriculture are tied for second on the list of the state's largest industries; oil production is the first, he said.

But Garrett pointed out that it's not just the tourism industry that benefits from visitors.

"It's all the relevant jobs that go on behind that: the people at the convenience store, the people at the birdfeeder stores," Garrett said.

He said the southwest region's parks, trails, scenery and cultural history are assets to the local tourism industry. Activities like pheasant hunting, mountain biking, hiking, wildlife viewing and horseback riding also attract visitors.

He stressed that small-town hospitality is a selling point that's sometimes overlooked.

"When people go home and say 'I feel like I was with family.' That goes a long way," he said.

Garrett's talk offered little new information to Maria Effertz-Hanson, whose family owns and operates Black Butte Adventures.

"It reiterated things that many people have said about North Dakota," Effertz-Hanson said.

In a workshop following Garrett's presentation, Effertz-Hanson shared her family's experience in starting an eco-tourism business on their ranch near Velva. They offer camping, mountain biking and hiking.

"It's not making any money so that I can quit my day job. But it's got a lot of potential," she said of the business.

Her advice to folks starting a similar venture: "Go at it slow because you're not going to make a lot of money right away...and find partners in your area."