BISMARCK — North Dakota's travel and tourism industry took major hits from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but a large jump in visits to the state's tourism website may hint at a possible bright future.

That's the picture revealed by the recently released 2020 North Dakota Tourism Division Annual Report, which shows the state had 18.7 million visitors last year, a 21% drop from 2019.

"2020 was a year of disruption and hardship for the travel and tourism industry," confirmed Tourism and Marketing Director Sara Otte Coleman, who added that North Dakota nonetheless has competitive advantages that allowed it to continue drawing visitors throughout the year and inspire future trips.

The latter was hinted at by the number of visits to the state's tourism website, www.NDtourism.com, with visitors up 51% in 2020, according to the annual report, which also noted traditional tourism inquiries were up 4% last year.

The report also showed that social media videos about North Dakota tourism were viewed 4.6 million times in 2020 and that 92% of website visits were from first-time users.

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Website analytics show that more than 60% of first-time website visitors access the travel guide order form page to either view digital guides or order printed brochures, according to Heather LeMoine, the North Dakota Department of Commerce's marketing and research manager.

LeMoine said user surveys indicate that 46% of site visitors have already decided to come to North Dakota, while 37% are interested in coming to the state and 17% are considering the destination.

In addition, tourism officials are able to gauge from mobile users that visiting the site makes someone 89% more likely to visit North Dakota and 25% more likely to stay an extra day if they do decide to visit, according to LeMoine.

The recently released annual report details a number of the state's marketing efforts, including numbers that show digital ads reached 112 million people, up 109% from 2019.

And while visitors to North Dakota spent $2.1 billion in 2020, a decline of 31% from the year before, the drop was much smaller than national numbers, which showed that, on average, visitor spending across the country fell by 45% in 2020.

The report said factors influencing lower tourism numbers included the March 2020 closure of the U.S.-Canada border.

On the brighter side, the report said North Dakota’s wide-open spaces and precautions taken by the industry under ND Smart Restart protocols led to more visitors seeking recreation where social distancing was easily practiced.

As evidence for that, the report noted that state park visitation was up 12% in 2020 after a surge in summer and fall camping.

The report also noted that the North Dakota Game and Fish Department saw increased license sales in 2020.