Businesses offer mixed reviews on summer tourism seasonby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Labor Day traditionally marks the end of the summer tourist season in Minnesota. It was a summer overshadowed by worries over high gas prices and a sluggish economy.
State officials say that uncertainty may have put a damper on the summer season. But early signs indicate that for some businesses, this summer was as good or better than last year.
Bemidji, Minn. — In Bemidji, the colorful statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox are big attractions. On warm summer days there's a steady flow of tourists snapping pictures of the towering duo.
The attraction is one way the local Chamber of Commerce gauges tourism. Visitors typically step into the local Chamber building, where receptionist Carol Olson keeps track of their numbers.
Olson says compared to last year, the numbers were down a bit in early summer, but the August count was slightly higher than last year. It may be no coincidence that gas prices that month were lower than their peak in July.
Rising gas prices brought predictions that long distance travelers might stay away this summer. Olson says that hasn't happened.
"In the months of June and July we saw people from 48 states," Olson said. "We've had visitors so far in August from 24 countries and July was 23 countries, and we've seen from six provinces in Canada so far. So they are traveling distances."
Some local gift shop owners say sales were dismal in June, but picked up to normal levels after that.
That scenario played out in other parts of the state, too, and may have had more to do with the weather than the economy. June was cool and wet, and that kept many travelers home. State tourism officials say business during the rest of the summer was a mixed bag.
"It was definitely a different summer from many summers we've had in the past," said John Edman, director of the state's Explore Minnesota tourism office.
Edman said a late summer survey of tourism-related businesses shows good news and bad news for the state's $10 billion industry. About a third of respondents said summer revenues were down from last year. Edman said hotel lodging in the state was generally flat, but overall tourism revenues appear slightly up.
"A little over half the respondents indicated that the summer was about the same or better than last year," he said. "There were still some concerns about the economy, a lot more last minute trip planning, people weren't necessarily spending as much. So the overall impacts of the economy certainly have had some impacts on travel this summer."
Edman said high gas prices changed the patterns of some travelers. He says it appears that -- as expected -- many Minnesotans skipped out-of-state travel plans and took vacations closer to home. Edman says the weak American dollar was another bright spot. It made coming to Minnesota a bargain for international travelers.
"The value of the dollar makes travel from Canada and other overseas markets to Minnesota very, very desirable, and we did actually see quite an influx in the number of Canadians coming down for travel and for shopping," he said.
Some Minnesota resort owners made adjustments this year to make sure their cabins stayed full. Resorts typically require at least a week's stay, but some resorts this summer were accepting shorter reservations of a few days, or even just one night.
Bob Barton owns 11 cabins at Hidden Haven Resort on Bass Lake near Cohasset. Barton said he has had no problem staying full this summer. He's seen more guests from Minnesota this year, and he's also seen an increase in customers from Chicago, the Dakotas and Iowa. Barton said business is so good, he plans to build three more cabins.
"I think there's been a lot of media hype surrounding gas prices that just isn't true," Barton said. "We just haven't seen a drop-off in our business in any way, shape or form."
Barton says guests at his resort are spending money, too. He says he sold more gas for his customers' boats by mid-July than he did all of last summer. He says sales are also up on hats, t-shirts and souvenirs.
"There's more good news than bad news out there on the tourism front," Barton said. "People are still going to travel. They're still going to take that summer vacation, and I think that the people that are out there offering good product are going to reap the benefits of that."
State officials are still collecting and analyzing data on how economic pressures shaped the summer tourist season. But they say the evidence so far suggests things could have been a lot worse.
- Morning Edition, 09/01/2008, 6:47 a.m.