Even as fuel prices hit an all-time high, state officials and business operators in South Dakota’s tourism industry remain optimistic that the summer of 2022 will be another record-breaking season for visitors and income.
Tourism industry experts say the post-COVID desire to travel, South Dakota’s wide variety of tourist attractions and reputation for great hospitality have outweighed visitor concerns about high gas prices, at least so far in 2022.
Gasoline prices have risen steadily over the past few months and are well above what drivers paid for fuel last year.
On May 19, the national average price for regular unleaded gasoline was $4.59 per gallon, according to the American Automobile Association. South Dakota’s average was $4.20 a gallon, AAA said, and all 50 states had an average price above $4 a gallon on that date.
For comparison, the national average price on May 19, 2021 was $2.90 per gallon of unleaded.
Deb Schuetzle, operator of the Hitching Horse Inn in Pierre, credits South Dakota’s welcoming reputation as one of the main reasons the state remains a popular tourist destination, even in times of soaring fuel prices.
“We really thought our gas prices might affect our tourist season, but so far it hasn’t,” said Schuetzle, who runs the four-room inn. South Dakota has a “warmth and charm that people love,” she said.
The Hitching Horse Inn has been consistently full this year and has had to turn some people away, Schuetzle said. “It’s really improved…and I’m probably ahead of last year. So I’m very, very happy with it. »
Tourism is one of the state’s largest industries, and many South Dakota cities and residents depend on visitor spending to maintain a thriving economy.
In its 2021 Economic Impact Report, the South Dakota Department of Tourism said 13.5 million people visited the state that year. These visitors spent an estimated $4.4 billion in 2021, a 30% increase from 2020.
The industry generated $354 million in state and local sales taxes in 2021. Visitor spending represents 5.1% of South Dakota’s economy and supports one in 17 jobs in the state. Tax revenue generated from tourism saves South Dakota households $980 a year in taxes, the department said.
“Tourism in South Dakota is a job-creating and revenue-generating industry that plays a vital role in sustaining the state’s economy year after year. This is not only valuable to the state of South Dakota, these efforts impact communities and families across our state,” wrote Katlyn Svendsen, spokesperson for the South Dakota Department of Tourism, to News Watch in an email.
The main branches of the tourism industry include accommodation, retail trade, and the sale of food and beverages. With fuel prices nearly a dollar per gallon higher than in 2021, transportation could play a bigger role in the choices tourists make in 2022, but isn’t expected to lead to a major drop in visits or revenue, a said Svendsen.
“We can see shorter journeys, less money spent on food, drinks, souvenirs etc. [But] we remain confident that our family-friendly, affordable state, featuring world-class outdoor adventures, will continue to draw visitors to South Dakota,” Svendsen wrote.
Teri Schmidt, executive director of Experience Sioux Falls, which aims to bring visitors to the Sioux Falls area, said gas prices don’t seem to be a major barrier to visiting the area so far.
“Our requests for tour guides are up, the interest in Sioux Falls, the calls we’re getting…it’s all up. If so, we should still have a great summer,” Schmidt said. “South Dakota and Sioux Falls offer what people are looking for – the great outdoors, activities, events, culture, sports, our state has it all.”
Svendsen added that in the first quarter of 2022, the state was already 18% ahead of 2019 visitor numbers. She added that Arrivalist, a mobile geolocation tracking company, showed South Dakota recorded the largest increase in overnight stays so far this year, with an 11% increase over 2019.
As high gas prices make travel more expensive, many visitors continue to plan their vacations.
High gas prices haven’t deterred Duane Johnson and his wife Trish from taking a long driving vacation this month. The retired couple from Wisconsin stopped to refuel in Rapid City on May 17 on their way home from visiting their daughter in Salt Lake City.
Gasoline prices were so volatile that the Johnsons paid $3.80 a gallon when they left Wisconsin two weeks earlier to make the 2,600-mile round trip. In Rapid City, they paid $4.48 a gallon for mid-grade unleaded gasoline. Unleaded cost them $4.80 a gallon in Salt Lake City, Johnson said.
” And that ? Almost $100 to fill up,” said Johnson, who felt compelled to point out that he is not movie actor Dwayne Johnson, The Rock.
Johnson said the couple discussed the cost of gas before going on vacation, but decided the desire to visit their daughter outweighed their worries about fuel costs.
“Gas prices affect us, but they haven’t stopped us,” he said.
The couple considered saving money by driving to Utah in their Toyota, which gets over 20 miles per gallon, but took their gas-guzzling (14 mpg) Chevy Silverado because they wanted to bring a bed and d other belongings to their daughter and needed the cargo space.
Johnson said the couple’s wanderlust will keep them on the road this summer, with trips planned to Montana and back to Salt Lake City. But if gas goes to $6 a gallon or more, Johnson said the pair will fly rather than drive, or perhaps reduce commuting altogether.
“What are you going to do?” says Johnson. “If you want to travel, you have to pay to do it.”
According to the 2022 fuel price outlook published by Gasbuddy, a site that predicts and publishes fuel prices online, drivers can save quite a bit at the pumps during the summer months. The forecast rate for May averaged $4.25 a gallon, with June falling to $4.21, July to $4.18 and $4.23 in August.
Schmidt also pointed out that travelers within the state are just as important as those from afar.
“We want those long-distance travelers to pass, but the people in our area are just as important,” she said.
“We’re a weekend destination, and that’s a big part of what got us through COVID.”
President Biden banned imports of Russian crude oil in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Domestic oil producers are also ramping up production after events in 2020 caused demand for oil to plummet. During a White House briefing on March 31, Biden announced an unprecedented release of federal crude oil reserves at a rate of 1 million barrels per day for the next six months to help smooth the market until that domestic producers can meet demand. However, across the United States, drivers are still paying more per gallon than ever before.
This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a nonprofit journalism organization located online at SDNewsWatch.org.