10 posts categorized "Travel"

More recharging personal batteries at national parks

Even in the digital age—or maybe because of it—the great outdoors continues to be a tourism draw, as evidenced by growing visits to the country’s national parks, according to data from the National Park Service (NPS). And those visits are translating to the Ninth District economy.

Attendance has been trending upward at many parks, especially since the recession. Last year, attendance grew 6 percent among the 13 national parks in the Ninth District with annual attendance of at least 100,000, and is up almost 20 percent since 2008 (see Chart 1). In 2014, attendance at these district parks hit 9 million for the first time.

Among these large national parks in the district, two of them—Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and Glacier National in Montana—are responsible for half of all visitors. (The list does not include Yellowstone, portions of which are in Montana, but which lies mostly in Wyoming.) The biggest jump in attendance last year occurred at the Apostle Island National Park. Located in Lake Superior off the northern tip of Wisconsin, it saw attendance double to almost 300,000 in 2014 thanks to an impressive formation of ice caves on the island, coupled with a uniquely long viewing period.

Those visitors are spending money and creating jobs, according to a separate NPS database. Visitor spending hit nearly $1.2 billion last year, supporting more than 20,000 jobs (see Chart 2) in district states.

National parks

Minnesota: The land of 10,000 deep-fried things

The annual Minnesota State Fair finished on a high note this year, setting an attendance record of 1.82 million. The state’s fair is known for its unusual popularity compared with fairs of other states, and it is the second-largest state fair in the nation, second only to Texas.

The fair’s popularity has continued to grow slowly and steadily over time, with only occasional and modest declines in annual attendance (see chart). One of the reasons for this steady attendance pattern likely has something to do with simple population growth. Since 1990, the Minnesota State Fair has typically attracted the equivalent of about one of every three residents (fluctuating modestly between about 31 percent and 36 percent of the state population in a given year). As the population has grown, so too has State Fair attendance.

That doesn’t, however, explain why the Minnesota State Fair is popular to more of its residents than those of other states. For example, attendance at the Wisconsin State Fair represents fewer than one in five state residents. The State Fair of Texas attracts about 2.8 million visitors (over 24 days, compared to Minnesota’s 11 days). Still, that works out to barely one in 10 residents of the Lone Star State.

State Fair attendance -- 10-15-14

Boundary Waters: Roughing it, for the day

The dead of winter can be a good time to start dreaming of a summer vacation. In Minnesota, many might be thinking about a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But fewer of those dreams appear to include overnight stays.

The 1.3-million-acre BWCAW, located in the northern third of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota (see map), is renowned for its vast nonmotorized lakes and other recreation areas. Since 2003, the park has seen a steady drop in permits (required for overnight stays and other special uses between May 1 and Sept. 30), but an increase in total visitors, according to information from the Superior National Forest office (see chart).

The office believes the annual variation and general decline in permits is likely the result of a combination of factors, including camp fire restrictions, bugs, weather, gas prices and the general health of the economy.

At the same time, based on permits and other monitoring, the office estimates that there has been a slow, steady increase in total park visitation from an estimated 200,000 people in 2000 to an estimated 250,000 people in recent years. This increase, according to the office, likely reflected shifts in travel patterns and length of stay, with fewer overnight stays and more day use spread more broadly across the seasons.

BWCAW chart & map -- 1-23-14

District tourism hopes upward trend continues

With summer travel around the corner, many Ninth District businesses hope they can improve on 2012’s good-to-great tourism year, according to data from state tourism offices and university research centers in district states.

District states that track visitors or lodging stays reported 2012 increases across the board (see chart, at bottom). Gains were larger in Montana and especially North Dakota, where total visitors increased by 7 percent. South Dakota did not publish annual figures for visitors or spending change over the previous year, but reported that state park visitation last summer was up by 8 percent. North Dakota saw the same trend, with national park visitation there up 13 percent last year. Canadian border crossings were also up 8 percent.

States that track visitor spending saw it increase faster than visitor numbers. Wisconsin tourism spending grew by almost 5 percent last year, while Montana tourists were feeling particularly flush, spending 15 percent more in 2012 than the previous year. While Minnesota’s total lodging demand increased by 1.4 percent, total lodging revenue rose by 3.7 percent.

Higher visitor spending has been a consistent trend for several years, as tourists have found their wallets again after the recession. In Wisconsin, visitor spending has grown by 25 percent since 2009, to $10.4 billion. Montana has seen even stronger spending growth (40 percent) over the same period. However, the state experienced a steep downturn in visitor spending from 2007 to 2009, and last year’s $3.2 billion in spending finally reached above the state’s previous peak ($3.1 billion) in 2007.

Some positive early signs for the 2013 season are already evident. Early projections in Montana for the 2013 season were pegged at 2 percent growth of nonresident visits, and a 4 percent increase in spending. In Minnesota, lodging demand grew by 4.3 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2012.

Tourism 2012 -- 5-10-13

Beige Book, Minneapolis: Ninth District economy slowly improving

The Ninth District economy expanded modestly during late summer and early fall, according the most recent Beige Book released this week by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Each of the 12 Federal Reserve district banks drafts a similar report, which in sum are a summary of regional economic conditions across the country, in preparation for the Oct. 23-24 Federal Open Market Committee meeting, where interest rates and other monetary policy issues are decided.

In the Ninth District, improved activity was seen in construction and real estate, consumer spending, tourism and professional services. Energy and mining continued to perform at high levels, while agriculture varied widely, with crop farmers generally in better condition than animal producers. On the softer side, manufacturing activity slowed in late summer, and wage increases remained subdued, although stronger increases were reported in some areas. But labor markets tightened somewhat, and price increases were generally modest.

For those interested in other regional, national or historical Beige Book reports on economic conditions, the Minneapolis Fed offers everything in one spot.

Minnesota’s lakes: More impaired, but don't be afraid to jump in

In the land of 10,000 lakes, the Minnesota economy has a unique relationship to water that is widely used for fishing, general recreation and even moving goods to market. So it raised some eyebrows when the state announced that more than 600 bodies of water were added this year to its list of impaired lakes and rivers.

But before the “ick” factor makes you put away that canoe, or pull the kids from their favorite swimming hole, it helps to get the background story. Turns out that the measure is more building block than condemnation—a work-in-progress assessment for preserving one of the state’s most valuable natural resources.

Since the mid-1990s, the federal government has required states to assess their water quality. Since then, the number of impaired bodies of water—those that don’t meet various federal water quality standards—has risen steadily and now stands at more than 3,600 (see chart). A map shows that these impaired water bodies are widespread (see map).

MN impaired lakes CH1 -- 9-28-12  MN impaired lakes map -- 9-28-12

While this might not be “good” news for boaters and anglers, neither is it necessarily cause for great concern, according to officials with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which puts the list together. The state has an incredibly large amount of water—92,000 miles of streams alone—and the growing impairment numbers “are indicative of our growing monitoring efforts,” said David Christopherson, who does environmental reporting and special studies for the agency’s water division.

Water bodies make the list if they exceed any number of water quality standards, like turbidity (excessive sediment), eutrophication (too much nutrient, often phosphorous from farm run-off), presence of fecal coliform or a host of other standards. In putting together its biennial impairment report, the agency “uses all available data” from internal and external sources with information about any of the state’s water bodies. As a result, the data are neither comprehensive nor systematic; given that the list comes from a partial assessment, it’s not even a random sample that could be considered scientifically representative.

The list also is highly sensitive to evolving standards for water quality. For example, a huge spike in listings in 1998 was the result of a first-time federal advisory on mercury and fish consumption, and mercury impairment is by far the biggest source of listings. Christopherson added that the state will be applying additional nutrient standards in the near future, “and I would expect to see a big jump (in impairments) then too.”

As a result, he said, “I don’t think (the impairment list) gives us much indication of overall water quality” in the state. Instead, Christopherson said the impairment list is more like a slow-growing benchmark that will give policymakers and others the data necessary to develop a more comprehensive approach to improving and maintaining water quality. “This is a primary driver in terms of what we’re doing” to improve water quality. “Once they get on the list, we have to deal with them.”

He acknowledged that “there are a lot of water quality issues out there. It’s a big issue and will take a long time to address … (but) I don’t think anyone here is particularly surprised” by the growing list of impaired lakes and rivers. The agency generally believes that about 40 percent of water bodies could stand some improvement, and the list “matches what we’ve been finding for years and kind of expected. A lot of other (states) are worse.”

The biggest trophy: Out-of-state hunters and anglers

A new U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey shows that district states have a unique profile when it comes to wildlife recreation, particularly when it comes to economic activity resulting from the great outdoors.

The survey, conducted every five years, measures participation in and expenditures for hunting, fishing and wildlife watching (observing, photographing and feeding wildlife; includes those who do it from home or nearby). Almost across the board, Ninth District states have higher than average rates than the nation as a whole—maybe not surprising given the natural assets and wide-open spaces in each state (see Chart 1).

Those activities bring with them considerable revenue, and the more who come for the outdoors, the higher the returns. Spending per participant in most district states is very consistent with the national average of about $1,500. But South Dakota and (especially) Montana are exceptions, seeing significantly higher spending by participants (see Chart 2, right bars). With high participation and high average spending by those participants, those states see almost quadruple the in-state spending on a per capita basis (see Chart 2, left bars).

  Hunting Ch1-2 -- 9-19-12

The large majority of those revenues are generated by hunters and anglers, despite the fact that there are considerably more wildlife watchers in most states (Minnesota and South Dakota are exceptions). Across district states, the average hunter/angler spends two to five times more than the average wildlife watcher (see Chart 3, at bottom).

But more fundamentally, high participation rates and expenditures are driven by nonresidents, who tend to spend more money than residents on travel, accommodations, food, equipment and other needs. For example, Montana has high rates of nonresident hunters (31 percent) and anglers (30 percent) who come to find big game and to fish world-famous trout streams in the Rocky Mountains. Montana also sees much higher spending from nature watchers—double the average of most other district states—again, often attracted from other states to the natural splendor of the Rockies.

South Dakota has exceptionally high rates of nonresident hunters (53 percent) and anglers (42 percent) as well, many of whom come to hunt pheasants throughout the state and to fish walleyes and other species in the cavernous Missouri River reservoir system, among the largest freshwater bodies in the world. Though the state has the highest rates of nonresident participation in the district, the relative accessibility of good hunting and fishing spots in South Dakota likely helps keep a lid on nonresident spending, at least compared with a trip to Montana’s Rockies.

The survey is done to benefit natural resource and conservation agencies, academic researchers and wildlife related recreation industries, which use the information to estimate demand and identify recreation trends. The methodology used for this survey changed from previous versions, according to the agency, making current results incomparable with previous surveys.

Hunting Ch3 -- 9-19-12

Minnesota lodging: Now I lay me down to sleep

Irrespective of the record heat, summer is a time for vacations, especially to places like the northwoods of Minnesota, where camping and old-time resorts with individual cabins are a time-tested tradition for many families. But as in any industry, things change, and the lodging industry in Minnesota has undergone some subtle shifts in the places people lay their heads during vacation or while on a work trip.

Explore Minnesota Tourism, the state’s tourism office, keeps a running (though unofficial) tally of lodging facilities of varying type, including indoor and outdoor. From 2002 to 2011, the total number shrank by 4 percent (see Chart 1). Resorts saw a 26 percent decline and had the largest loss in absolute numbers, losing about 290 operators. Private campgrounds saw a smaller loss in number (about 190) but a higher percentage loss (28 percent). That loss was somewhat offset by growth in state and other public campgrounds, which are fewer in number. Hotels and motels grew slightly, and vacation homes for rent (not listed in the chart) grew strongly from a percentage standpoint, but its listings are still small, at just 90 in 2011.

MN tourism Ch 1 -- 8-8-12

Despite the loss of facilities, the total number of lodging units has remained mostly unchanged over this period (see Chart 2). First, a little context: Riding the coattails of a hot economy in the 1990s, a tourism and lodging boom added thousands of hotel and other lodging units to the state. The echo of that boom started to die out in 2003, and the number of indoor lodging units in the state actually dropped by 1,500 by 2007. But by 2011, the number of indoor lodging units had bounced back by almost 1,900 units (about 2.5 percent).

At the campsite, it’s a fairly similar story (see Chart 2). Despite an erosion of campground operators, the number of individual campsites in 2011 is mostly unchanged from 2002, though there was some volatility in the middle. From 2006 to 2008, the number of tracked campsites fell by about 3,500 (10 percent), but then quickly rebounded by 2011.

Shifts in consumer demand underly these short- and long-term lodging patterns, as consumers demand new and different accommodations and amenities over time, and recessions tend to force out less competitive facilities from the market, leaving new opportunities when demand rebounds. Explore Minnesota reports that the state lodging industry saw “moderate improvement” through the first half of 2012, including a 1 percent increase in occupancy.

MN Tourism Ch 2 - 8-8-12

Driver’s seat: District car owners pay less for insurance

Nobody likes paying for things that might not get used, which is one of the reasons auto insurance doesn’t rank real high on people’s most-loved purchases. But drivers in the Ninth District pay a lot less for the comfort of knowing they are protected when the inevitable fender-bender occurs.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners released a report this month outlining average premium costs for drivers across the country. It shows that average annual premiums in the district (for 2009, the most recent data available) are considerably lower than the national average (see chart). In fact, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin rank two-three-four in the country for cheapest car insurance (Iowa ranked first, by margin of $20).

The exception is Michigan, where insurance premiums are easily the highest of any district state, and 14 percent above even the national average. It’s possible that drivers in the Upper Peninsula (who live in the Ninth District) pay lower rates than peers in lower Michigan (technically outside the district) given different underwriting factors like population density, which push premiums higher. But NAIC’s report does not split out such in-state differences.

A NAIC source also pointed out that state insurance regulations—like required coverage and coverage levels—play a big role in average premiums, which might also explain why Minnesota drivers pay more than Wisconsin drivers, and Montana drivers pay significantly more than drivers in the Dakotas.

One other notable trend is that average auto insurance premiums—including liability, collision and comprehensive coverage—are getting cheaper (see box within chart). Since 2005, every district state has seen average premiums decline, led by Minnesota and the Dakotas, all of which saw a price drop of at least 10 percent.

Auto insurance -- 1-23-12

People-on-a-stick: 2011 state fair attendance

Maybe it was good weather. Maybe it’s all the comfort food. Whatever the sources, district states generally saw strong attendance at their state fairs this year.

State fairs come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Most occur between late July and Labor Day. Some run longer than others. For example, South Dakota’s fair runs just five days, while Montana and North Dakota go for nine days, and Wisconsin and Minnesota keep the deep fryers roiling for 11 and 12 days, respectively.

Regardless of length, state fairs have been popular of late (see Chart 1). South Dakota saw an estimated 10 to 15 percent increase in its state fair attendance this year, highest of any district state. Montana and Wisconsin also posted small gains.

 State fair attendance -- 9-15-11

While Minnesota posted a tiny decrease in attendance (0.3 percent), it nonetheless has a lot to crow about: It has the second-largest total attendance in the country, at almost 1.8 million people (see Chart 2), second only to Texas. But at 150,000 people per day, Minnesota has the highest average daily attendance of any state fair in the country. On the final Sunday of this year, the fair drew 230,000 people—more than many fairs will see in total—yet it fell short of the attendance record by about 5,000 people.

North Dakota’s state fair had been seeing strong attendance gains in recent years, but was canceled this year due to the catastrophic flooding in the host city of Minot.

Maybe the most notable attendance trend is in South Dakota. As recently as 2006, the state was subsidizing the fair to the tune of almost $1 million annually. With tight budgets, lawmakers there have slowly cut back on that support, and this year’s subsidy was $270,000. Yet attendance has steadily climbed.