MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MONUMENT, S.D. — Gov. Kristi Noem told South Dakota's tourism industry to gear up for a busy summer, as she expects an influx of visitors itching to travel after more than a year of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
During an event at Mount Rushmore National Memorial this week, where she is suing to hold another fireworks display this summer, the Republican said there are many signs that tourism — the state's second-largest industry — will make a big rebound.
“The tourism industry is so important to our entire state,” Noem said, pointing to the tax revenue it brings in and the jobs it sustains.
Tourism spending dropped by 18 percent in 2020, but Noem said the state still welcomed ample visitors. She drew widespread attention — and criticism — for forgoing virus restrictions and hosting a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore that featured former President Donald Trump.
At an event in Sioux Falls, Noem downplayed the impact of the motorcycle rally, saying “less than a couple handfuls of cases were traced” to it. But a study from the Infectious Diseases Society of America published last week found that health officials reported 463 people who tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the rally. Another 186 people who were close contacts of rally-goers were also infected. The researchers, who surveyed public health departments in all 50 states and several large metro areas, found that 17 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 after attending the rally, and one died.
State government and the nine federally recognized tribes have an uneasy relationship that was exacerbated in 2020 when several tribes set up coronavirus checkpoints at reservation borders to keep out unnecessary visitors. Noem threatened to sue to have them taken down, although she didn’t follow through.
Meanwhile, the governor has initiated a legal battle with President Joe Biden's administration over holding fireworks at the monument to celebrate Independence Day once again this year. She successfully pushed last year for a revival of the pyrotechnic display after a decade-long hiatus, but the National Park Service denied the state’s application to hold the event again this summer due to safety concerns and objections from local Native American tribes.
Noem said she filed the lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior because the permit denial appeared to be “punitive or political.” Noem's tourism secretary, Jim Hagen, called the 2020 event “an economic lifeline” to the tourism industry in a court filing last week and argued that the proposed fireworks show this year would “provide critical income during a crucial" period for the state economy.
But the pyrotechnic display last year drew concerns over the wildfire danger it posed, and much of the state is already facing a drought this year. The National Park Service closed Mount Rushmore for several days in March as firefighters battled blazes within the park.
However, with or without fireworks, there are signs that people will be lining up at tourist attractions such as Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug and Badlands National Park. Web traffic to the state's tourism site, rental car bookings, and applications for hunting and fishing licenses are all up, according to Noem and Hagen.
Noem said her biggest concern about the upcoming tourism season is finding enough people to work in the industry, which offers mostly temporary, low-paying jobs. She promoted an initiative to match job-seekers with tourism businesses through the state's job-listing website.
“Telling our story worked,” Noem said.