The 77th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is underway and that means the Black Hills tourism season has moved into its final busy month.
Tourism officials say the numbers are down from the two previous years. Those two summers had big anniversaries, the 75th for the Sturgis Rally and the Park Service celebrating its 100th year.
However, tourism is changing in the Black Hills to meet changing tastes.
The Alpine Mountain Coaster is the first of its kind in the Black Hills. Two-person orange carts glide down roller coaster tracks along Rush Mountain. The track takes you through pig-tail bridges and sharp curves, while ripping through pine trees and swirling downhill.
It’s the latest addition to Rush Mountain Adventure Park. The park is near Keystone, and home to Rushmore Cave. They’ve been doing cave tours for 90 years, but owners of the park are expanding their vision. In addition to the new mountain coaster, they also have a zip line and an interactive ride featuring robot cowboys, aliens and zombies.
Ross Johnson is a co-owner of Rush Mountain with three others. They’ve owned and operated the cave and park for 10 years. Johnson says part of their strategy for drawing in tourists is… ‘If you aren’t growing you’re dying.’
“We are definitely investing in the future of the economy, the tourism economy in our area," he says.
Johnson says they’re focusing that investment on giving families something to do.
“It’s all about giving families an experience that’s on par with anywhere else they would travel, you know, the major tourist destinations in Orlando. We want to be on par with that, not just something that’s kind of fun, we want to be a true destination," Johnson says. "That’s what our end focus will be.”
Tourist numbers from the state show visits have increased each of the last 6 years, with nearly 14 million visitors to the state last year. It’s numbers like those that prompted Johnson and his partners to make Rush Mountain a year round destination.
Johnson says last year they were open every weekend in the fall until Christmas. This year, the adventure park opened in March. Johnson says they’ll be repeating that next year.
Jim Hagen is South Dakota Secretary of Tourism. He says the state tourist season is no longer limited to the 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
“We’ve been hearing more and more from our partners, the last two years, especially during spring break, that there’s—they’re starting to open up earlier because they’re seeing crowds come earlier,” Hagen says.
Tourism data lags about two months behind, so there aren’t numbers available for this summer yet. But, Hagen says he’s not expecting a record setting season this year. He says hotel occupancy numbers are down and visitor numbers remain flat.
Even though those numbers remain flat, job growth in the leisure and hospitality sector showed the largest increase in the last year—increasing by more than five percent.
Julie Jensen is the president of Visit Rapid City, a non-profit marketing organization for Rapid City and Black Hills tourism.
She says tourism and the hospitality industry is a huge job creator for the region.
“It’s such a clean industry," Jensen says. "They come, they spend their money, and they go home. The police don’t have to be called out to protect them, as a rule, we don’t need to teach their children, so they’re not a drain on the education part of our economy… They leave their money and they go home.”
According to state documents, in 2016 the tourism economy was worth $4.1 billion.
However, others are not so convinced that relying on tourism is healthy.
Jared McEntaffer is an economist with the South Dakota Dashboard, an independent data mining group in the state. He says tourism is fundamentally unstable.
That's because tourism is driven by a number of variables. It relies on low gas prices, which the industry cannot control. He says low gas prices may get people driving to the state, but he predicts a lower attendance at the Sturgis Rally this year. McEntaffer says that puts South Dakota is in a difficult position because it relies on sales tax revenue to fund government operations.
“The better way to do [it] is how can we turn this economy from being driven by tourism, to being driven by sources that are inherently more stable and provide a better long term source of growth and economic activity,” McEntaffer says.
There are plenty of entrepreneurs establishing local businesses in Rapid City aimed only partially at the tourist business. Sam Papendick and Carl Coth are owners and brewers with Hay Camp Brewing Company.
They recently opened their new space in an old Cadillac dealership and former Regional Hospital laundromat facility. Papendick and Coth turned their ground level location into a coffee shop, brewery, concert venue site.
Coth says some people see the Black Hills as just a tourist destination. He thinks Rapid City is a hidden gem.
“The downtown feel itself is bringing in that 30, 30 plus year old population and bringing them back," Coth says. "I think that’s a reflection of how our generation is seeing this area and wanting to come back and make it their’s and add a lot to it.”
Coth says their goal is to create a business that caters primarily to locals, but welcomes tourists as well.
Co-owner Sam Papendick says breweries give tourists a taste of the local flare.
“Whenever I travel, I always like to go taste the beer that’s being made in that area, the local foods and the local art," Papendick says.
While the main faces of Black Hills tourism - the ones carved in stone - are not changing, the kind of tourism is. Julie Jensen, with Visit Rapid City, says they’re seeing gentle growth in visitor numbers. That increase is roughly two percent, and has been increasing since 2011.
“The iconic national parks are the number one reason people travel nationally,” Jensen says.
Since Rapid City is in close proximity to those parks, forests and monuments, she says that puts the city in a good position.