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Published April 25 2012

'Oil tourists' present opportunities, challenges for North Dakota

BISMARCK – When people call the Dickinson Convention and Visitors Bureau asking for a map to do a self-tour of some oil rigs, Executive Director Terri Thiel says they have to let them know security and traffic mean it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“We explained that you can’t just drive up to some of these rigs,” she said.

Tourism officials from across the state discussed the opportunities and challenges western North Dakota’s oil boom is having on their industry during a conference Wednesday in Bismarck, with better communication being a common theme to clear up perceptions about access, safety and lodging.

The Dickinson CVB is taking steps to address the added interest in oil, Thiel said.

Thiel is working with a motorcoach group going through North Dakota this summer and will find someone from the Dickinson area who can step on the bus to talk about oil activity during their stop in town.

The CVB also is working to create a section about oil on its website and to put together information packets for oil-interested visitors who stop in, Thiel said.

Williston also is considering what it could do to meet the increased tourism interest in the oil boom, said Amy Krueger, executive director of its CVB, but safety presents “a lot of hurdles,” she said.

Although taking tourists out on a rig isn’t possible, there’s potential for educational tourism, Krueger said. “We are going to look into something,” she said.

State Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman said there’s also a perception that people can’t travel in western North Dakota and all of the hotels are booked, but that’s not necessarily so.

Lack of housing because of the oil boom and flooding meant hotels were busier than normal last summer as oil workers and families rented rooms.

Tourists should be able to find hotel rooms in western North Dakota this summer, but they need to plan ahead, Otte Coleman said. She said most hotels earmark rooms for leisure travelers and had openings last summer that weren’t filled because people assumed they were full.

There also are more rooms for rent. In the past two years, 26 new hotels opened in 13 communities in the state to help with demand, Commerce Commissioner Al Anderson said. Another 31 hotels are under development and are expected to add 2,400 rooms in the next year, he said.

Tourism officials in western North Dakota are working together to share ideas and discuss issues, said Wendy Howe, executive director of the Minot Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Negative stories about the Oil Patch have made some cautious, and perception is reality for a lot of people, she said.

“It is so easy to say, ‘Wow, that Wild West. You don’t want to go out there. It’s not safe to take your kids out there,’ ” she said.

She asked other tourism officials to help explain the communities are safe to visit.

It’s great the western visitors’ bureaus are getting together and talking, said Renee Sander of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“But did you forget that there were eastern CVBs? We need the information,” Sander said.

If tourism officials want leisure travelers to continue to make North Dakota a destination or part of their trip, there needs to be more communication between the western and eastern halves of the state, Sander said.

Most out-of-state tourists stopping at the Fargo visitors’ center are not aware of the oil boom, she said. Those heading west without advance hotel reservations are disappointed to find out they may have trouble getting rooms, she said.

The Fargo visitors’ bureau also sees travelers heading for the Oil Patch to find work.

“We find that they are very ill informed about our state,” Sander said. “They have dollar signs in their eyes and not facts.”

She said comments from visitors include: “Is this the state with the faces on the mountain?” and “Williston is about 50 miles from here, right?”

Krueger, of Williston’s CVB, said it was eye-opening to hear from other tourism officials during the conference.

“That’s what the tourism conference and all conferences are all about: education and learning,” she said.

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Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.