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Making the buck stop here

December 3, 2009


Ingrid Schneider stands on a dock.

Ingrid Schneider

The U's Tourism Center supports tourism initiatives throughout the state

By Rick Moore

Knee-deep in a recession, cutting expenses for leisure travel is a natural strategy, if not a necessity, but that trend has put a dent in the tourism industry.

An $11 billion industry annually, tourism is critical to the state's economy on a scale comparable to agriculture. It accounts for 15 percent of all state sales tax and about 10 percent (244,000) of the state's jobs.

That's where the University of Minnesota Tourism Center comes in. The center is a network of individuals—including University of Minnesota Extension educators reaching the entire state—who support tourism-dependent communities and businesses, according to Ingrid Schneider, director of the center.

The Tourism Center's work is highlighted in a new half-hour program airing on TPT's Minnesota Channel beginning December 6. It illustrates five initiatives scattered across the state: the St. Paul Festival Association, the Three Rivers Wine Trail, the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission and its Arts Meander (in west central Minnesota), the Brainerd Lakes Area, and sustainability efforts at The Mall of America.

"People don't realize how spread out tourism is across the year," Schneider says. "We think of it primarily as a summer activity. And while the greatest percentage is during the summer, we certainly have tourism opportunities spring, fall, and winter, and the percentage of tourists visiting us during those seasons attests to that."

The Napa Valley of the Midwest?

Ask anyone from outside of the state what he or she equates with Minnesota, and chances are no one will say "wine." But the southern part of the state is actually at the same latitude as some of the better wine growing regions in France.

"We say all the time, this is Napa Valley without the airfare," says John Maloney, co-owner of Cannon River Winery, in "Tourism in Minnesota." "What the University of Minnesota did for the apple [industry]—the Haralson, the Honeycrisp—that's what they're going to do with cold-hardy wine grapes. Several of the grapes we grow are a result of their breeding. Those grapes will tolerate 30, 35, even 40 [degrees] below."

A few years ago, a University of Minnesota graduate student hatched the idea of a statewide wine trail. Kent Gustafson, a University of Minnesota Extension educator, then grabbed the vine and started talking with the wineries, facilitating meetings, and organizing them into a unified group.

The result of this collaboration is the Three Rivers Wine Trail linking wineries along the Cannon, St. Croix, and Mississippi rivers.

"That was a real nice embodiment of education, engagement, and research and represents how we bring our three-legged stool together at the University," Schneider says. "The project idea evolved from a class we teach on nature and culture-based tourism. The student then brought that forward as a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) project, then [University] staff followed up on it, and now we have a couple different wine trails at least, and more on the way."

Some refreshing signs

The state's tourism industry has had its share of challenges. Dollars spent on travel are down this year, although the U.S. Travel Association predicts that domestic travel and lodging occupancy rates will return to growth in 2010.

Minnesota is also hamstrung by a smaller marketing budget. It ranks in the lower third of states for spending, trailing regional competitors like Wisconsin and even South Dakota.

Yet year in and year out, polls indicate that more than 95 percent of Minnesotans believe that tourism is important or very important to the economy, Schneider says.

Although expensive trips might be less tenable due to the economy, taking the time to take a vacation—however close to home—might be more important than ever... because of the shaky economy.

"We're increasingly under stress because of the economic situation, both personally and professionally," Schneider says. "That vacation really provides an opportunity for a person to recharge, to reduce stress, and come back as a more refreshed person with a new perspective."

"Tourism in Minnesota: Ideas at Play" will air a number of times on TPT's Minnesota Channel throughout December. It can also be accessed online at the Minnesota Tourism Center site.

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