Wish You Were Here: Iowa Goes All Out For Tourists | News, Sports, Jobs
WEBSTER CITY – On March 12, 2020, all 41 Broadway theaters in New York closed as the first wave of the corona virus swept through the city, and are expected to reopen a month later. This, of course, did not happen.
Finally, 18 months later, in September 2021, some of the most famous shows, including “Bad,” “Hamiltons” and “The Lion King” reopened.
More than 300,000 people make a living from tourism in New York; equip hotels, restaurants, museums, shops and city attractions. Half the number of normal visitors returned in 2021 and 75% of the city’s 120,000 hotel rooms were filled during spring break 2022, more than at any time since the start of the pandemic. Hopes for business this summer are high.
Nearly 1,200 miles away in Webster City, Ann Vogelbacher, executive director and sole employee of Iowa’s Central Tourism Region, is doing what she does every day: telling potential visitors what to see, where to stay and where to eat in the heartbeat of “overflown country”.
What brings 16 million visitors to Iowa each year? Besides the usual reasons: seeing friends or relatives, attending family events or business meetings, it’s also the charm of rural America, cuisine with names you can still pronounce and friendly people who are really happy that you came and who show it. In 2019, Iowa was the 32nd most visited state, ahead of Alaska which, although high on many “bucket lists”, is remote, and therefore expensive to reach, and second only to Michigan, a top Midwestern destination with more attractions and a bigger tourist budget, according to Vogelbacher.
Not a state to spend its money on, Iowa has a small staff at the Des Moines headquarters of its Iowa Office of Tourism, but they go to market with data from an Oxford Economics marketing study (d ‘Oxford, England, not Oxford, Iowa) , who shamelessly sells what he calls “the world’s best-in-class economic and industrial models.”
In the spring of 2022, Iowa is once again courting visitors from half a dozen contiguous states where most of its visitors have traditionally hailed from.
This year, however, thanks to an $8.5 million windfall in American Rescue Plan Act funds and a $5.3 million prize to Iowa Tourism from the US Economic Development Administration, the state has a tourism advertising campaign that is achieving impressive results. In its first seven weeks, Iowa’s first-ever cable TV spot aired 7,124 times across the country and viewed for more than 335,000 minutes on Facebook and Instagram. Requests for tourist information about Iowa increase during peak summer travel months.
One of Iowa’s natural advantages is that it’s in the way of so many other places. Crossing 11 states on its 2,900-mile coast-to-coast route, I-80 is a prime choice for motorists heading to major destinations such as New York, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco. Convincing even a few of those motorists to pull over and stay the night, eat a meal out, or visit a local attraction can bring in millions of dollars in business and tax revenue each year.
Despite the pandemic, visitors to Iowa still spent $4.6 billion in 2020, generating $1.5 billion in tax revenue. Sixty thousand jobs were supported by visitors to Iowa in 2020, about as many as those living in Dubuque.
Iowa has budgeted $4.4 million each year since 2016 to promote tourism, less than most other states. Several other state budget programs may have a positive impact on tourism in some years as a secondary objective. Of eight neighboring states, only Kansas consistently spends less than Iowa on tourism ($3.8 million annually). Minnesota spends twice as much ($9.9 million in 2020), Wisconsin $16 million and Illinois, a much larger destination for tourists, $41 million, Vogelbacher said. Even in small states, taxes on hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and admissions to attractions can add up. In 2019, Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second largest city, used hotel/motel tax receipts to fund 23 local nonprofits with $1.2 million.
It’s hard to imagine where that money would come from if not for tourism.
An important part of Iowa’s strategy for promoting itself to visitors is to focus on ages 22 to 40, or as the state tourist board calls them; “young adults looking for new experiences” and “young families looking for a (family) place to travel.”
Vogelbacher cites two new facilities that show the state is determined to attract these visitors:
Laurisden Skatepark: Many cities have skateparks, but in 2021 Des Moines opened a five-acre, 88,000-square-foot park that claims to be the largest in the country. Inspired by plazas and architecture around the world, it’s open from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, lit at night, able to challenge the world’s best skateboarders or newbies, and free.
Gypsum City OHV Park: Thirty years ago, Iowa had nowhere to legally drive off-road vehicles (OHVs); today he is eight. Perhaps the most spectacular is in an old gypsum mine on the edge of Fort Dodge. It took nearly 20 years of mostly volunteer work to create an 800-acre park with 60 miles of trails for all-terrain vehicles, side-by-sides and dirt bikes. The trails start from a 0.4 mile children’s trail to trails for advanced riders with water crossings and “muddy areas”. There is no admission charge, but all Iowa-based vehicles must display a permit from the Department of Natural Resources (nonresidents must have a nonresident permit). Each costs $17.75 for 2022.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on tourism worldwide, with up to 73% of all jobs lost during the leisure and hospitality industry. While overall U.S. employment is down just 1% from pre-pandemic 2019 levels, job losses in tourism remain 9% lower.
According to a February 2022 study, the outlook for tourism in Iowa this year is expected to be bright. Data from the World Travel & Tourism Council predicts that travel to the United States will rebound strongly in 2022; exceeding pre-pandemic 2019 levels by 6.2% as vaccinated travelers hit the road after two years of lockdown. High gas and lodging costs can temper demand, but Iowa offers solid value in both. At 5.0%, Iowa State’s lodging tax is among the lowest in the country (cities and towns may add local option taxes on top of that), and at an average of at just under $4 a gallon, filling up in Iowa is cheaper than almost anywhere else in America.
So while 2022 may not be the year you’ll take a dream vacation in Europe or a Caribbean cruise, the welcome mat is definitely out in friendly, familiar, and neighborly Iowa.