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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published June 07 2013

ND tourism off to steady start

BISMARCK – Medora Mayor Doug Ellison says all indicators point to a good tourism season this summer.

Since Memorial Day, the unofficial summer kickoff weekend, he said the number of visitors through the small western town that boasts the Medora Musical and historic old-west look, has been steady, and that’s with many rainy days and two weeks before the musical was set to open Friday night.

“So far, the traffic is encouraging,” he said. “April into May is typically a gradual buildup, and then there’s a large boom once the musical starts up.”

Ellison and his wife, Mary, said the town is ready for the boom as the musical kicks off this weekend.

State Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman is hopeful for yet another busy tourist season.

“We’re optimistic the year is going to be a good one for us,” she said, as the tourism department is pushing hard to promote the extra hotels that have opened recently. She said lodging was an issue for travelers the past few years.

The tourism department’s quarterly report for January, February and March 2013 found the number of visitors to the state parks was down by 10,000 compared to the first quarter in 2012. Likewise, national park visits were down 13 percent and major attractions saw 83,000 fewer visitors than the beginning of last year.

But tourism in the first quarter of 2012 was up significantly over the previous year, and last year had the benefit of a much earlier spring warm-up than 2013.

According to the tourism department’s 2012 annual report, North Dakota saw 17.2 million visitors, with the number of visitors to the state’s major attractions up 7 percent from 2011 with 4.5 million visitors. That includes a 13 percent increase to the number of national park visitors with 677,000, and 102,685 stopped at local visitor centers, a 9 percent increase from 2011.

The Ellisons, who also run a bookstore and inn, said most people who travel to Medora go for the musical and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which has its entrance just outside Medora.

“It’s just gorgeous now with the green spring,” Mary Ellison said about the park.

Others just use the town to stop for a break since it’s a mile off Interstate 94.

Jim and Rose Conrad, of Columbus, Ohio, stopped at the national park’s South Unit information center in Medora on Monday – a quick stop they often make to stretch their legs when they visit family in Bozeman, Mont.

“It’s the Badlands, the green landscape and natural beauty, there’s nothing like it,” Rose Conrad said about stopping in the park.

The park is open year round, but officially kicked off its summer season June 1.

Coleman said they often hear from people planning trips to the state a general curiosity about the oil boom.

“There’s a small percentage that have their concerns, but there are some people that it has piqued their interest and given them reason to get to the western part of the state,” she said.

Two companies are capitalizing on this general interest in the oil industry.

Jeff Zarling, president of Dawa Solutions Group, a graphic design and Web development firm in Williston, said to understand the oil development, “you have to see it to believe it.”

That’s why his company is in its second year of providing tours around the oil fields.

The Bakken Field Tour by Dawa Solutions was born after the company trucked investors around during the 2011 Bakken investor conference in Minot.

Afterward, the company began receiving so many requests for tours, it had to develop the scheduled tour concept.

This summer, the company has eight tours. Two already took place in May, drawing in about 20 people. Tours start in Williston or Dickinson.