ST. PAUL — After taking the pandemic into account, the visitors bureau in Fergus Falls, Minn., came up with a grim forecast for the summer 2020 tourism season.

It was estimated that the west-central Minnesota city could see a loss of up to 35% in lodging tax revenue. But a loss of that magnitude never quite materialized.

A slate of construction projects in the area ferried traffic to local businesses already used to serving out-of-town clientele, according to Visit Fergus Falls Executive Director Jean Bowman. Event organizers found creative ways to hold outdoor gatherings that allowed for social distancing — the field behind the vacant and castle-like Fergus Falls State Hospital on several occasions was used to stage drive-in movie screenings and concerts, for example.

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For Fergus Falls, according to Bowman, the summer was neither as strong nor as painful as it could have been. The coming winter could have additional challenges in store for the city of approximately 13,000, however, remains to be seen.

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Winter activities such as ice fishing and cross-country skiing will likely still bring business to the region, Bowman said. But the concerts and theatrical productions and vendor fairs that moved outside over the summer probably won't be able to do so again once temperatures begin to drop.

"I do think winter is going to be pretty painful," Bowman said.

Almost as soon as it was identified, the coronavirus pandemic posed a challenge to businesses that depend on travel and tourism. Bars and restaurants, which see a boost from both, suddenly found themselves unable to serve patrons in person. Fewer people booked flights for fear of contracting COVID-19, the highly transmissible illness caused by the novel coronavirus, in the close confines of airplanes.

Vacation plans were postponed or outright canceled. To survive, businesses that thrive off tourism have had to adapt to changes in consumer demands that the pandemic brought about while complying with constantly evolving public health guidelines.

They may have to maintain that delicate balance for an interminable amount of time.

While it took only 10 months since the start of the pandemic for the first doses of a publicly available vaccine COVID-19 to be administered in the U.S., it will take more time still for a sufficient number of the population to be inoculated and for travel to resume its pace and rhythm. According to the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group, travel spending may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

Some of the changes businesses have been forced to make may well outlive the pandemic. The field behind the vacant hospital in Fergus Falls, Bowman said, will be useful far into the future. Small retailers and restaurants in town that updated their websites to offer online shopping and curbside pickup options during the pandemic might never have done so in the first place had the health crisis not forced them to.

The adoption of newer and more sophisticated websites by Fergus Falls businesses has resulted in a push to make wireless Internet more accessible across the city, Bowman said, an idea now being explored in collaboration with the Blandin Foundation, a philanthropy focused on rural Minnesota.

For Todd Larson, the pandemic brought new — and, he hopes, loyal — customers. Mouse River Outfitters, his guided waterfowl hunting service in Kramer, N.D., became a magnet for sportsmen who he said would ordinarily have traveled to Canada, which has all but closed its border to the U.S. because of COVID-19.

"My business has actually doubled because of the closure in Canada," Larson said.

Though the risk of transmitting COVID-19 is lower in the outdoors, Larson said he does provide his clients with face masks and hand sanitizer. A mandate instituted by Gov. Doug Burgum amid a surge in diagnoses last month requires the former to be worn.

Larson is hopeful that the uptick in business he is seeing will continue. Several of his newest clients told him they would prefer to hunt with him again in the future to hunting in Canada, he said.

"I’m already more booked now than I usually am at this time, and we’ve owned this business for 20 years now," he said.

Outdoor offerings have proven popular throughout the region during the pandemic, with multiple state and regional parks reporting high volumes of traffic. While visitation and travel spending are down in South Dakota, total park visits for the year are up by roughly 10%.

"People are still exploring our state safely in the security of the outdoors," South Dakota Secretary of Tourism James Hagen said.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania are introduced to the crowd during the Mount Rushmore Fireworks Celebration on Friday, July 3 in Keystone. (Matt Gade / Republic)
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania are introduced to the crowd during the Mount Rushmore Fireworks Celebration on Friday, July 3 in Keystone. (Matt Gade / Republic)

South Dakota's glut of wide, open spaces makes it a viable place to recreate even in the times of COVID-19, according to Hagen. The state's tourist economy also may have been spared the deleterious effects of the pandemic restrictions, of which South Dakota has virtually none. The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore National Memorial were widely attended this summer, with President Donald Trump making an appearance at the latter.

The lack of restrictions in the state, though controversial, has been a selling point for it in official marketing materials. Consequently, more people used South Dakota's travel websites to research travel options this year.

"This tells us that consumers are anticipating the day when they can travel again and are taking a hard look at South Dakota as a vacation destination," Hagen said in an email.

Hagen points to the 24% drop in annual travel spending in the state compared to the 45% drop observed nationwide as proof of the state tourist economy's resilience and said there is hope that spending may pick back up even sooner than it is expected to across the U.S. as a whole.

"But this is dependent on many variables," he said.

In conversation, many business owners and leaders in the regional tourism economy expressed similar hopes for the future. After spending the better part of a year indoors, they said, Americans may be contending with a pent up demand for new experiences.

The vaccine now being distributed makes those hopes especially achievable, according to Bowman, in Fergus Falls.

"We’re a very hopeful and optimistic business anyways," she said. "What doesn’t hurt you makes you stronger."

This story is part of a 13-day series that looks at all the ways 2020 has changed us. From now until 2021, expect stories on workplace and education, sports, economics, politics and everything in between. Contact Matthew Guerry at mguerry@forumcomm.com or 651-321-4314.