PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota tourism industry is surging this year, spurred on by good weather, low gas prices and landmark events such as the 75th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, officials say.
Expectations for 2015 have been high because of key events like the historic rally and the 50th Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup. Across the state, businesses and officials say it's shaping up to be a big year for tourism, a pillar industry that brought in an estimated $2 billion to South Dakota's economy last year.
At the end of July, there were nearly $350 million in tourism taxable sales, which is more than 14 percent higher than the same period last year, according to information provided by the state Tourism Department. That translates to a jump of nearly 17 percent for the state tourism tax from the same time last year.
"This is excellent," said Kirk Hulstein, research and visitor services manager at the tourism department. "As we come to a conclusion of the summer months, indicators are showing that this could be one of our biggest years ever."
State and national park visits and hotel occupancy are also up over last year, Hulstein said.
At Custer State Park, visitors were up about 6 percent through the end of July compared to the year before and revenue was up about 13 percent. Craig Pugsley, park visitor services coordinator, said around rally time, Custer brought in about $560,000 from motorcycles entering the park — over $200,000 more than during the same period last year. Pugsley is also expecting larger-than-usual crowds for the Buffalo Roundup in September, which he called "a good economic shot in the arm" for that time of year.
"The park is a special place, and it attracts lots of people who have very fond memories of their experience here," he said. "It is a gem."
Rick Hustead, chairman of Wall Drug, said revenue is running about 12.5 percent over this time last year. That margin was significantly higher around the rally, he said, and Wall's tourist magnet brought on a dozen extra employees to handle the rally business. "Six percent would be good," he said of the gains this year. "Twelve percent is amazing."
Jacquie Fuks, executive director of Southeast South Dakota Tourism, said tourism advertising has started coming out earlier. She said sites and businesses in the region also started seeing large numbers of visitors earlier than usual this year.
"The weather was perfect and kind of got people out and going," she said. "Gas prices didn't hurt."
Scott Carlson, from Lakeville, Minnesota, visited South Dakota for about a week in June with his son. The retired 59-year-old said they drove from Minnesota and fished near Chamberlain on the Missouri river before heading to the Black Hills area to explore Custer and the Badlands.
Carlson said his sister and her husband are planning to visit South Dakota in September from Illinois.
"After I described the trip to them, they got very interested, so they're heading out, too," he said.
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