Minnesota is the starting point for the mighty Mississippi River, the largest river in North America and one of the largest in the world. Stepping across the rocks at the official headwaters at Itasca State Park, it can be hard to believe that the clear, shallow waters will grow to 11 miles wide at points, and over 200 feet deep at its end. Much like this stream winding through the woods, the tourism industry in Minnesota can be easily mistaken for a small, quiet industry.
One reason for the challenge in understanding the scale of the tourism industry in Minnesota is that our concept of what makes a person officially a “visitor” isn’t consistent with the term used by the industry. From a research perspective, the term visitor is used when someone travels at least 50 miles one-way to or stays overnight at a destination (regardless of travel distance).
Translated into Minnesota distance lingo, you might hear people say “an hour drive.” Considering our state is about 200 miles across at the narrowest point and about 400 miles long — that makes for a lot of possible 50-mile trips!
Another reason that communities may struggle to “see” tourism, is that many visitors in our communities are visiting friends and family. Travelers in this category fly under the radar of lodging tax reports and other indicators of tourism counts. Stretching out for the weekend in your childhood bedroom, on an air mattress at a friend’s cabin, or crashing in grandma’s guestroom doesn’t turn up in traditional data in a direct way.
Measuring sales tax data and using other research tools can help you understand traffic patterns and tourism impact. While tempting to think that no hotel in town equals no tourism, visiting friends and family are significant contributors to community tourism.
Finally, the wide range of recreational activities across the state makes it easier to overlook how many people are using facilities. Our state encompasses prairie, oak savannah, and pine forests, enabling an incredible variety of activities and experiences. Many of these activities are dispersed across the state, versus in a huge parking lot for a mega-attraction.
When the goal is to have quiet solitude in nature, measuring the number of users in a space at a given time can be a challenge. It is no wonder usage is hard to grasp as a casual passerby, as it is complex for experienced researchers as well.
Minnesota residents exploring the state, visitors from other states and other nations, have long prioritized seeing the natural wonders contained within the borders of the North Star State. As we welcome ice-out and can see the rushing waters of the Mississippi, take a look around and consider how tourism is connected in your corner of the state.
With any luck, you will find surprising breadth and depth to the ways tourism is bigger than what meets the eye.