The least visited state in mainland U.S. is having a tourism boom, thanks to oil
The bandlands of North Dakota. wuji9981 / Flickr.com
North Dakota is having a moment, and how.
New people are coming to North Dakota and the state’s tourist attractions want to see them.
Terry Harzinski, executive director of the Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he was sitting beside a man from Mobile, Ala., on a flight out of the Bismarck airport. He said the man, who was working in the West, told him, “We love Bismarck.”
When the man’s family came to visit, they stayed in Bismarck to shop and spend time together.
“We know we’re getting people from the oil patch,” Harzinski said.
The national attention given to North Dakota’s oil boom has made it a place of interest for people across the country, and tourism is benefiting. There were 17.2 million visitors to the state in 2012.
“We can see our industry growing. Tourism across the state is growing,” Harzinski said.
In Bismarck, expansions at the Dakota Zoo, Sleepy Hollow Arts Park and the North Dakota Heritage Center will bring more things for visitors to do, said Sara Otte Coleman, tourism director for the North Dakota Department of Commerce. Events like the United Tribes International Powwow and Mandan Rodeo Days remain big draws.
“We’ve obviously seen tremendous growth across the state,” Otte Coleman said.
It is difficult to market directly to workers in the West because they differ, depending on the company they work for and the hours they work, Otte Coleman said. What the department has found is that they’re “hungry for information,” especially about the outdoors, she said.
Otte Coleman said the department is getting information to workers as much as possible but the main marketing dollars are still best spent on regional and international efforts.
“What the boom is bringing is visitors with mineral interests,” said Doug Bolken, executive director of McKenzie County Tourism.
Whether people are coming to see land under which they own mineral rights or are wandering into a visitor center in search of housing resources, oil is the hook that gets them there, Bolken said. And the draw of the community is what he hopes keeps them there.
“Previous residents and new residents are really embracing the community,” he said.
Otte Coleman said while Watford City has oil, the town is trying to use tourism to sustain it for the long run. Even before the boom, Watford City invested in its future with an updated visitor center and downtown development.
“We want to bring people in on weekends to use Watford City as their base of exploration,” Bolken said.
Watford City is centrally located with close access to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Lake Sakakawea and other tourist destinations like Fort Union, Fort Buford and the Tobacco Gardens resort, Bolken said.
Two new hotels have been built in the town, which brings the hotel inventory to five with more on the horizon. A new grocery store and restaurants are coming.
Otte Coleman said many small towns, like Watford City, now have new hotels to build around, attracting large events as well as smaller ones like weddings and reunions. Since 2011, there were 42 new hotels built across the state and 39 more are planned for 2013.
With more hotels the city also would like to attract more conferences and meetings for companies operating in the area, Bolken said.
Walking paths downtown make the city easy to get around and Watford City is trying to maintain its hometown feel with its fairs and festivals, Bolken said.
“Even amongst the oil boom, it’s still a great place to come visit,” he said.
Another group trying to put its small towns on the tourism map is the Tri-County Tourism Alliance, which includes Emmons, Logan and McIntosh counties.
The alliance, which started in June 2010, wants the area to be a tourist destination for those interested in German-Russian culture, said President Carmen Rath-Wald.
The effort started with the 2009 Dakota Memories Tour, which Rath-Wald said allowed the towns to see how much interest there was in German Russian culture.
The group recently released a German-Russian cookbook, which it hopes to use to entice visitors to the area, Rath-Wald said.
“We know from our Facebook page how much interest there is in food,” she said. The page has had comments from people in Germany, Brazil and across the U.S., she said.
Rath-Wald said the alliance is doing such things as creating a directory of places to eat, a directory of churches and cemeteries, and is working with local writers to promote local attractions and with senior centers to market quilts and embroidered goods made by residents.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for someone working in the oil field to get away for a while and try something different,” Rath-Wald said. “They can have a breakfast of coffee and kuchen in Hazelton, stop in museums on their way to the Braddock Threshing Bee and end in Strasburg at the Lawrence Welk home site.”
Otte Coleman said Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Medora are still the front-runners for tourist attractions.
Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation Director Randy Hatzenbuhler said the foundation has changed the start time for the Medora Musical to 7:30 p.m. MDT so more families can make it and visitors can be downtown by 9:30 p.m.
The foundation also has a new marketing campaign and is expanding the role of Theodore Roosevelt by having a presenter. The website now includes a trip planner and an Instagram feed for visitors to share pictures, Hatzenbuhler said. A new 22-room AmericInn is increasing the town’s hotel capacity.
Hatzenbuhler said Medora could help keep residents in the state or bring new ones as families come to visit parents working in the oil field.
“Medora represents something about North Dakota that’s very good,” he said.
The foundation is trying to be more proactive with its marketing by doing things like sending Medora Musical performers to entertain across the state, Hatzenbuhler said. The musical usually brings in 85,000 to 95,000 people.
“The goal is to get to 100,000 annually,” Hatzenbuhler said.
The number of visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is up, too, he said. It totaled 677,099 in 2012, up 13 percent from 2011. ___