Sturgis rally begins as high prices put a damper on South Dakota summer tourism
With transportation and other necessities costing households more, total visitors to the state in May were 7% below the same time last year. Various attractions around the state say they're noticing the drop.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — With the 2022 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally underway, South Dakota tourism officials hope higher travel costs don't keep too many bikers from making the trip to the Black Hills.
"I don't have a really good feel for what the numbers could be for Sturgis this year," state tourism Secretary Jim Hagen told Forum News Service. "I did talk to a number of partners when I was in the Black Hills last week, and I think everyone was sort of questioning, I wonder how the rally is going to be this year."
Last year, the rally attracted 550,000 attendees.
Visitor numbers at major state attractions and responses to recent consumer surveys indicate that elevated costs are affecting summer travel, leading to a slight underperformance of the state’s tourism industry compared to last year, which set records for total visitors and spending.
“I think back to February and early March, we were preparing for peak season and pretty optimistic, and then when gas prices started inching up pretty quickly and inflation started skyrocketing, we were seeing more and more that consumers we're saying in surveys that they were going to pull back from longer trips,” Hagen said. “With that being said your numbers are pretty solid. I would say through May, June and July, things are close to where they were last year.”
Tourism is a major part of the state’s economy; according to the Department of Tourism’s Economic Impact Report, the industry made up 5% of the state’s GDP and nearly 9% of jobs in the state.
Tourism levels so far this year have remained in line with 2021 numbers as of the end of May, but peak tourism season has begun to show the effects of strained pocketbooks. In May, total visitors were down nearly 10% compared to the same month last year., according to official Department of Tourism numbers. Although total spending in May was up 6%, that number does not account for inflation of around 9%.
While Hagen said numbers at Mount Rushmore are up around 10%, May numbers from the tourism database show visits to the site down 7% compared to May of last year. The park, which takes media requests through the National Park Service, did not respond to a request for comment.
Though their experiences and magnitude vary, most tourist destinations in the state contacted by Forum News Service reported a drop in summer traffic in comparison to last year.
Badlands National Park reported a 20% drop in traffic in June, according to Aaron Kaye, the chief of interpretation for the park. At the Corn Palace in Mitchell, visitor numbers were down at least 20% as of the middle of July, Corn Palace Director Doug Greenway told the Mitchell Republic.
Wall Drug chairman Rick Hustead said sales at the West River tourist stop have dropped 14%, though he pointed to a variety of factors that made 2021 unique.
“People had been cooped up with COVID,” Hustead said. “Boy they were ready to go someplace, and they may not have wanted to fly, so it was the perfect storm for us as a roadside attraction.”
At Wind Cave National Park near Custer, Chief Interpreter Tom Farrell said visitation is up 4% compared to last year. However, the park was plagued by understaffing in 2021 and often had to turn people away; this year, the park is adequately staffed but “rarely” sells out, he said.
On the other side of the state, Siouxland Heritage Museums Director Bill Hoskins said total visitors at the Pettigrew Home and Museum and the Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls are up nearly 40% so far this year; however, during June and July, traffic is down 10% from those months last year.
Still, Hagen and others involved in the tourism industry told Forum News Service that comparisons to either 2020 or 2021 can become skewed, as federal stimulus and a drop in international travel were some explanations for the record tourism in 2021, while widespread closures made 2020 numbers artificially low. According to travel numbers released by the U.S. Travel Association, spending in South Dakota through the end of June had jumped 6.5% compared to 2019, the sixth highest in the nation.
And, while that same report showed 43% of Americans say rising gas prices will greatly impact their decision to travel in the coming months, the drop in gas prices over the month of July could keep key tourism drivers such as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and Labor Day weekend from underperforming.
“I'm encouraged by the fact that gas prices are inching down and they have now for the last four weeks,” Hagen said. “And so we've picked up a little bit of chatter on some of our target markets from families who may have canceled their vacations outright thinking maybe they should reconsider now.”