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Business & Economics

Tourism Industry Prepares For Summer Season, Despite Visa Shortfall

Lee Strubinger

Tourism industry officials are kicking off the summer season with National Tourism Week.

It’s a week of preparation for the influx of tourists expected in South Dakota. Tourism brings in almost $4 billion dollars.

However, not everyone is convinced a tourism based economy is healthy for a community.

Tourism brings in the big bucks. It’s the second largest industry in South Dakota behind agriculture. Observers say roughly 14 million visitors come to South Dakota every year, and that number is increasing.

Julie Schmitz-Jensen is president of Visit Rapid City, a non-profit marketing organization in the Black Hills Area.
She says South Dakota citizens shouldn’t take tourists for granted.

“There are a lot of destinations doing a lot of marketing, and they all want those visitors to come to their towns and cities. We always try to remind our local people to appreciate the visitors,” Schmitz-Jensen says. “Appreciate the dollars they leave in our state, help them when they look confused or lost… if they’re going down the wrong way on a one-way street, help them get turned around. Give them directions, give them suggestions for things to see and do.”

Schmitz-Jensen says 54-thousand jobs are directly impacted in South Dakota’s visitor industry. Those numbers come from a company called Tourism Economics, a firm the state hires to crunch industry data.

Jennifer Sherman is an associate professor of sociology at Washington State University. Her latest book profiles a once former logging community turned tourist area. She says on paper, tourism towns look strong by economic indicator standards. However...

“Once you’ve transitioned from something like manufacturing towards something like tourism, you have a lot of work that isn’t full time, that is poorly paid, that isn’t very secure. These are the kinds of issues we need to grapple with more than should I or shouldn’t I visit a place,” Sherman says. “I think there’s lots of reasons why a tourism economy can be helpful, but it is also a question of how will the people who are doing those jobs survive? Particularly as these places become more in demand and housing prices rise.”

According to South Dakota Dashboard, in 2016 South Dakota was the fourth lowest state with a housing cost burden, which is defined as spending more than thirty percent of annual income on housing. The Black Hills region burden is just over two percent higher than the state average.

H-2B Visa Shortage

Tourism officials say they’re concerned by the number of H-2B visas available for short term, seasonal workers to fill vacancies during the tourism season.

Julie Schmitz-Jensen says her group has been to Washington DC to lobby for lifting the cap of available H-2B visas, but she says it may be too late.

“Visitor attractions and hotels are going to have to—probably attractions more than hotels—are going to have to open later in the season, shorten their number of hours that they are open and close earlier at the end of the season," Schmitz-Jensen says. "You can’t be open without helpers, without workers.”

The 2018 Omnibus Bill passed by Congress in March increased the number of available H-2B visas by 69-thousand. Jensen says that cap has not yet been reached. South Dakota has a low unemployment rate.
Temporary visa workers fill jobs during the construction and tourist season.


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