People went outside in and around Grand Forks.

“We started the season like everyone else: pretty much with a suspension,” said Larry Hagen, manager at Turtle River State Park, west of Grand Forks. “But the only thing that became very clear to us when everything was shut down was we became everyone’s point of sale.”

As the year progressed, and as restrictions eased, Turtle River’s hiking and biking trails became one of the hottest spots in the area. Annual visits usually hover over 80,000, Hagen said, but there were more than 120,000 guests in 2020, with constant comments that visitors had never seen the trails so well used.

“We have heard reports that it is difficult to buy a bike,” said Hagen. “Well, they were all here.”

This pent-up, repressed demand for something to do was almost universal. Visitors to Yellowstone National Park increased 21% in September compared to 2019, according to the National Park Service. This was the busiest September on record. Americans may be nervous about going to the bar or taking the family to the movies, but they’re still looking for something to do.

For the leading companies in the tourism industry in North Dakota, this pent-up desire seems to be an opportunity – an economical racing car that turns its engine and just waits for the green flag and the open track. Sara Otte Coleman, director of tourism and marketing for North Dakota, points to a January poll that found the percentage of Americans interested in visiting parks, resorts, overseas, and the like has been in double digits since May has risen.

In short, Americans are committed to traveling outdoors. And that could be good for North Dakota.

“We have the experience and the kind of top things people will be looking for,” said Otte Coleman, pointing out that North Dakota state parks broke records this year, with camping nights up 35%. “The opportunity is to make sure they know North Dakota has these things.”

More specifically, Otte Coleman wants North Dakota legislation to spend $ 2 million more on advertising in the coming biennium. Right now, she said, the state’s tourism division runs on a two-year budget of $ 9.6 million, but an increase in advertising funding of $ 2 million – plus more for day-to-day operations – would help its reach as well Increase effect.

“If you look at the total budget – the total marketing budget – we’re only a fraction, almost half, of what the other states in our region are,” she said. “To keep up and get our message across, we really need extra dollars.”

To illustrate this, Otte Coleman provided summaries of the 2020 annual budget figures for the nearby states, collected by the US Travel Association. The numbers, she said, have been standardized by the group, which eliminates spending on some things like grants or visitor centers to make it easier to compare the numbers. Under these conditions, North Dakota is spending $ 4.5 million per year (a little less than half of the two-year budget of $ 9.6 million).

Other states’ annual spending seems to go way beyond that, from Montana at $ 9.7 million to Minnesota at $ 9.9 million to South Dakota at $ 15.1 million, of which Otte Coleman said they still don’t count millions in federal South Dakota funding, including spending on tourism initiatives.

House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, has made no commitments – it’s very early in a session that will be about federal incentives and juggling a whole host of other topics – but he told the Herald he was open to promoting tourism funding.

“We had parks and recreation (funding),” he said of the House Committee’s recent deliberations, “and I think we were trying to see exactly what you are talking about. Those have been heavily used.”

The question comes at a critical time for North Dakota’s future, at a time when many state departments are trying to save money. However, with the launch of the vaccine, North Dakota is poised to shake off COVID’s worst economic slump this year. North Dakota is one of the most efficient states in the country at distributing its vaccines. About 12% of the population will receive at least one vaccine shot. This is well above the national average of 10% per New York Times database accessed Wednesday.

CONNECTED: North Dakota has distributed the COVID-19 vaccine more efficiently than any other state. What is the secret of success?

That made many observers optimistic. Julie Rygg, director of the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau, said things may get better soon. Youth hockey is recovering and early planning for major outdoor events for later this year – like the Downtown Street Fair – is already underway.

“We actually see some of that light at the end of the tunnel,” said Rygg.

This is in sharp contrast to how it was six months ago, when the hotel and hospitality industry was hit hard by COVID and was still facing the deepest, darkest weeks of the North Dakota pandemic that hit in November. Rygg said in the fall that the hospitality sector was facing a “depression”.

Clare Albrecht remembers it well. As Senior Regional Director of Sales at National Hospitality Services, which operates Staybridge Suites in Grand Forks, she recalls the first few weeks of the pandemic that stalled demand for weeks. Staybridge’s kitchenettes helped save revenue, but she said overall Grand Forks occupancy fell 25% in 2020.

The future looks better. Some companies may not come back – the American company is quickly realizing that virtual training and zoom calls work just as well as face-to-face visits, Albrecht said. But she insists that nothing will ever really replace a personal visit.

“We’re looking at things like family stays and doing more of that type of marketing to create additional demand,” she said. “… It’s like, come and enjoy a little getaway without having to travel far or step on one.” Flight.”

And Mark Schill, a consultant for the Praxis Strategy Group in Grand Forks, points out that much of the travel to Grand Forks from the Minneapolis, Fargo and other regions is within driving distance.

“That suggests that the low-hanging fruit for the Grand Forks tourism industry is likely to be regional and likely to be car trips,” he said. “I suspect this trip will come back sooner than the plane trip.”

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Hagen’s fingers crossed that the next year will remain strong and undo the strength of last year’s pandemic.

“People have figured out where we are – what we can offer, how close we are to the Grand Forks area,” he said. He kicks off the park man’s sales pitch: It’s only 20 minutes from downtown Grand Forks to 15 miles of hiking trails and all of the bird watching you could want.

“I would like to offer this service to many people,” said Hagen.