Cold, wet weather keeps tourists from visiting at start of season

By Jeff Smith

Wyatt Urlacher, 8, touches the Iron Star horse on June 4. Although there has been a string of nice days lately there was a lot of cold days earlier in the season which didn’t aid those in the tourism industry.

Traffic might be pretty unusual in Hill City but during weekends coming up it might be a pretty common site.

It might not be all cars but the community sees a mix of pedestrians, motorcycles, bikes and ATVs out on the road this time of year.

At a recent meeting, Brett McMacken, city administrator for Hill City, said the traffic report showed there has been less traffic in Hill City this past month than in previous years. May traffic was down six to seven percent.

The summer vacation season has started and like it or not, tourists are here. The common denominator is that spirits are high even if it doesn’t end up being a banner year.

Michelle Thomson, president/CEO of the Black Hills & Badlands Tourism Association, said the only issue she has been hearing that creates problems with tourism is workforce. It’s not a new problem, but it is something that businesses think a lot about. There are problems that come later in the season and there is always a concern over whether  or not people have enough employees to adequately staff their businesses throughout the summer.

Thomson said overall the season started off slow through April. There isn’t any data yet for May but in talking to area attractions and hotels it seems that May picked up quite a lot.

According to Thomson, the tourism season started earlier and everything is looking good going forward. Thomson said weather is the main reason why there was a slower start to the tourism season this year.

“It was very cold and we had some days where businesses that might have been opened were closed because of the weather,” Thomson said.

The Associated Press has reported that “this will be the most expensive driving season since 2014.” The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that this summer gas prices will average around $2.74 a gallon. Earlier this year $2.41 a gallon was the average gas price.

Thomson said people tend to value their vacation now more and they understand that the price of gas doesn’t affect their trip.

“We’re not really seeing that gas prices are affecting plans to travel to the area,” Thomson said.

She said people have been planning trips for a long time and they won’t often back out of them.

The national parks in the area are still a huge draw to tourists.

“Outdoor recreation is getting to be a very large draw as well. People are realizing what great resources we have for outdoor recreation like hiking, biking, rock climbing and such,” Thomson said.

The Black Hills and Badlands are really starting to get known more as an outdoor recreation destination. Many people come to camp and families come for the wealth of family-friendly attractions.

Last year there were 13.9 million visitors to South Dakota. There is no specific data for how many visitors came to the Black Hills but 39.4 percent of visitor spending in 2017 was in the Black Hills.

Public information officer at Mount Rushmore, Maureen McGee-Ballinger, said the national park has been very busy.

Generally the first day where there is large increase in the amount of attendance is on Friday before Memorial Day but this year it was on Thursday.

McGee-Ballinger said July 3-4 are busy days at Mount Rushmore but she said the busiest day is the Monday of the Sturgis Rally.

Visitation between January and the end of April this year there were 241,368 visitors to Mount  Rushmore.

“It’s down from last year but May looks to be up,” McGee-Ballinger said.

She thinks it will be a great summer and has already started off so well. As terms of numbers at Mount Rushmore she is expecting about the same.

“Although we have been increasing almost every year,” McGee-Ballinger said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw higher visitation numbers this year than last year.”

Last year, there were 3.1 million visitors to Mount  Rushmore by the end of October.

Marla Davis, office manager of Forest Recreation Management, (FRM) Inc., said the start of the season was wonderful and there was a very busy holiday weekend over Memorial Day.

Davis said the beaches and picnic areas saw a lot of use over Memorial Day too. She doesn’t expect to see a downward trend in that area unless there is a fire ban.

“It doesn’t look like there will be one anytime soon,” Davis said.

Davis said during any holiday the campgrounds are always full.

“In the summer, Pactola and Sheridan are full on the weekends,” Davis said.

There are 33 campgrounds with more than 682 individual sites that FRM is responsible for taking care of. Around 60 employees work for FRM. Davis said the employees run campsites, clean campsites, work in day-use booths to collect fees and there is also a mowing crew.

There are area managers for the north, central and south regions.

“We have area managers that go around and give supplies, collect the monies,” Davis said.

Davis said there is always a little difficulty finding employees but they have everybody that they need.

Josh Ripley, owner of Desperados Cowboy Restaurant in Hill City, said the start of the season has been steady. It’s been a little bit slower than in the past which he attributes to the cold, rainy weather.

“I’m thinking it will be about the same season as last year,” Ripley said.

He has heard the scuttlebutt of reservations being up a bit  but is not expecting that much of a change.

His kitchen is fully-staffed and he has a few server slots here and there but overall there hasn’t been as much of a problem finding employees.

Taryn Alexander, assistant manager for the Holiday Inn Express in Keystone,  said for Memorial Day weekend they were not fully-booked but close to it. The hotel has 62 rooms and there was just one room that didn’t have any guests.

“It was good. It seemed to kick it off for the summer,”Alexander said.

She was looking at having it close to full there for the next couple of weekends too.

Alexander said that the time that they reserve rooms is pretty scattered but the norm is usually two weeks out. She said about a fourth of the people who stay there are walk-ins.

She said it is pretty typical to see the hotel pretty full during Fourth of July and then throughout the Sturgis Rally.

On average, the length of time for people’s stay is three nights.

“It’s mostly families on vacation. You don’t get much business travel here,” Alexander said.

She said some will stay a whole week and some might just stay a night to see Mount Rushmore and then go to surrounding areas.

Julie Smoragiewicz, owner of Yak Ridge Cabins and Farmstead, said as a whole they are significantly up in reservations from last year. Over Memorial Day weekend there was a wedding reception there so all the cabins were full.

Yak Ridge Cabins and Farmstead started its third season this year. The place will be celebrating its third year in September. There are three cabins on the property now and there will be fourth one that is being finished that will be available later this month.

Smoragiewicz added that they are seeing guests from all over the country and some that are international.

Smoragiewicz said June and July will be full and there are just a few days open in August and September.

“Then it will be open a lot more in October,” Smoragiewicz said.