It’s no New York City, but North Dakota, along with its upper midwest neighbors, is slowly gaining prominence as a popular international tourist destination.

The state’s prairies, history and deeply rooted cowboy culture are strong selling points to an increasing number of tourists, mostly from western European countries, who come looking for authentic American experiences, travel professionals said.

A group of about a dozen tour operators and managers from Europe and the U.S. passed through Richardton and Medora on Saturday as part of a statewide familiarization trip hosted by North Dakota Tourism and coordinated by the marketing group Rocky Mountain International, a firm that markets Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas to partners internationally.

The so-called “fam” trips help RMI representatives promote the region, dubbed “the Real America,” to clients back home, Wyoming-based RMI senior marketing manager Kim Birrell said.

“The goal is to bring more travelers from Europe to (North Dakota),” Birrell said.

When tour operators “see these things for themselves, they’re much more excited than if they were just reading about it,” she added.

Saturday’s visit to the Assumption Abbey in Richardton was part of several stops North Dakota has hosted since the state’s division of tourism joined the full RMI consortium earlier this year. Other destinations along the five-day tour, which began Friday in Bismarck at the United Tribes International Powwow, will include Medora, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and various attractions in Fargo.

“There is a trend among international travelers to seek ‘real American’ experiences, and here in North Dakota we have a lot to offer that niche,” state director of tourism Sara Otte Coleman said in a statement earlier this week announcing the visit.

For many of the RMI representatives on the tour, this is their first chance to see what North Dakota has to offer, said Fred Walker, international marketing manager at the North Dakota Department of Commerce’s tourism division.

That’s the case for Dutch tour coordinator Patricia Wijsbeek. When she told friends she was going to North Dakota, she said many asked her, “What’s there?”

“I told them, ‘I’ll tell you when I come back,'” Wijsbeek answered.

Two days into her first trip to the midwest, Wijsbeek said the region is “so beautiful.”

“It’s a bit of the Wild West,” she said, “how it used to be.”

Tourism to the U.S., particularly from Europe, has been gaining momentum as countries recover from the international economic downturn and the euro remains stronger than the U.S. dollar. Travel from the United Kingdom was up 1.9 percent in 2013 over the previous year, according to the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries; Swedish tourism to the U.S. was up 8.2 percent.

None of the states in RMI’s “Real America” region cracked the top 20 U.S. destinations for international visitors — New York, Florida and California remain the lead draws — but Birrell said Europeans share Wijsbeek’s attraction to the “Wild West:” the wide open spaces and cowboy-rancher culture of North Dakota and its neighbors.

“It’s different for them,” Birrell said.

The top markets visiting the region are, in order, the U.K., Germany, Australia, France, the Nordic countries, the Benelux region (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) and Italy, according to a report by RMI.

Even if the upper midwest isn’t the first stop tourists make when they come to the U.S., RMI representatives say travelers will hit the area on their second or third trip to the country.

Herv Duxin, general manager of RMI-France, said that although “New York is America for some of them,” French travelers feel a strong connection to the Dakotas and their shared history in the area, most notably the town of Medora, founded by the famous rancher and duelist Marquis de Mores.

French tourists “want to discover, they want to go deep into American culture,” Duxin said. “They like to come back home feeling like they’ve learned something.”

Raised on movies and stories of Western culture, French visitors find that in North Dakota, “it still exists,” he said.

A former professional cowboy, Duxin said he wants to put together tour packages for travelers back home that they can’t find with any other company.

“We are very excited to get this to the French market,” he said. “They’ll be surprised and happy with what they see.”

(c)2014 the Dickinson Press (Dickinson, N.D.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Tags: tourists, usa
Photo Credit: Train tracks run through Bucyrus, North Dakota. Andrew Filer / Flickr