Wish you were here: Iowa’s going all out for tourists

And that means Webster City’s Ann Vogelbacher is hard at work

-Messenger photo by Robert E. Oliver
Ann Vogelbacher, executive director and only employee of Iowa’s Central Tourism Region, is doing what she does every day: telling would-be visitors what to see, where to stay and where to eat in the beating heart of “flyover country.” She is pictured in her Webster City office.

WEBSTER CITY ­– On March 12, 2020, New York City’s 41 Broadway theaters closed as the first wave of corona virus swept over the city, expecting to reopen a month later. That, of course, didn’t happen.

Finally, 18 months later, in September 2021, a few of the most famous shows, including “Wicked,” “Hamilton” and “The Lion King” reopened.

More than 300,000 people earn a living from tourism in New York City; staffing the city’s hotels, restaurants, museums, shops and attractions. Half the number of normal visitors returned in 2021, and 75% of the city’s 120,000 hotel rooms were filled over spring break 2022, more than at any time since the pandemic began. Hopes for this summer’s business are running high.

Nearly 1,200 miles away, in Webster City, Ann Vogelbacher, executive director and only employee of Iowa’s Central Tourism Region, is doing what she does every day: telling would-be visitors what to see, where to stay and where to eat in the beating heart of “flyover country.”

What draws 16 million visitors to Iowa each year? Besides the usual reasons: to see friends or relatives, attend family events or business meetings, it’s also the charm of rural America, food with names you can still pronounce, and friendly people who are genuinely glad you came, and show it. In 2019, Iowa was the 32nd most visited state, ahead of Alaska which, although high on many “bucket lists,” is remotely located, and so, expensive to reach, and right behind Michigan, a top Midwestern destination, with more attractions and a bigger tourism budget, according to Vogelbacher.

-Messenger file photo
A pair of visitors stop to look over the trail map posted in the campground at the Gypsum City OHV Park south of Fort Dodge.

Not a state to throw its money around, Iowa has a small staff in the Des Moines headquarters of its Iowa Tourism Office, but they go to market with data from a marketing study by Oxford Economics (from Oxford, England, not Oxford, Iowa), which immodestly sells what it calls “best-in-class global economic and industry models.”

In spring 2022, Iowa is again wooing visitors from a half-dozen contiguous states where most of its visitors traditionally originate.

This year, though, thanks to a windfall of $8.5 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, and a $5.3 million award to Iowa Tourism from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the state has a tourism advertising campaign that’s getting impressive results. In its first seven weeks, Iowa’s first-ever cable TV spot was shown 7,124 times across the country, and viewed for over 335,000 minutes on Facebook and Instagram. Requests for Iowa tourism information is up going into the peak summer travel months.

One of Iowa’s natural advantages is that it’s on the way to so many other places. Crossing 11 states on its 2,900 mile coast-to-coast route, I-80 is a top choice of motorists going to such major destinations as New York City, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco. Convincing even a few of those motorists to pull over and stay the night, eat a restaurant meal, or visit a local attraction can add up to 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 live in Dubuque.

Iowa has budgeted $4.4 million dollars each year since 2016 to promote tourism, less than most other states. Several other programs in the state budget may positively affect tourism in some years, as a secondary objective. Of eight nearby states, only Kansas regularly spends less than Iowa on tourism ($3.8 million per year). Minnesota lays out twice as much ($9.9 million in 2020), Wisconsin $16 million, and Illinois, a much larger destination for tourists, a substantial $41 million, Vogelbacher said. Even in small states, taxes from 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 nonprofit organizations to the tune of $1.2 million.

It’s hard to imagine where this money would come from if not tourism.

An important part of Iowa’s strategy in promoting itself to visitors is a focus on 22- to 40-year-olds, or as the state tourism office refers to them; “young adults looking to experience new things” and “young families looking for a (family-friendly) place to travel.”

Vogelbacher cites two new facilities that show the state is serious about attracting these visitors:

Laurisden skatepark: Many cities have skateparks, but in 2021, Des Moines opened a five-acre, 88,000-square-foot park claimed to be the country’s largest. Inspired by plazas and architecture worldwide, it’s open 6.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, lit at night, capable of challenging the world’s best skateboarders, or newest beginners, and free.

Gypsum City OHV Park: Thirty years ago Iowa had no place to legally ride off-highway vehicles (OHVs); today it has eight. The most spectacular may be in a former 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 off-road motorcycles. Trails run from a .4-mile kids track up to trails for advanced riders with water crossings and “mudding areas.” There’s no admission fee, but all Iowa-based vehicles must display a Department of Natural Resources permit (non-residents must have a non-resident permit). Each costs $17.75 for 2022.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on tourism world-wide, with up to 73 percent of all jobs lost during the duration in leisure and hospitality. While overall U.S. employment is now down only 1 percent versus pre-pandemic levels of 2019, tourism job losses remain 9 percent lower.

According to a February 2022 study, the outlook for tourism in Iowa this year should be bright. Data from the World Travel & Tourism Council predicts US travel will rebound strongly in 2022; surpassing pre-pandemic 2019 levels by 6.2 percent as vaccinated travelers take to the road after two years of lockdowns. High gasoline and lodging costs may temper demand, but Iowa offers solid value in both. At 5.0 percent, Iowa’s state lodging tax is among the nation’s lowest (cities and towns may add local option taxes on top of this), and at an average of 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 take that dream vacation to Europe, or a Caribbean cruise, the welcome mat is definitely out in friendly, familiar, nearby Iowa.


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