VALLEY SPRINGS, S.D. (KELO) — Mary Lou Nelson taught history for more than 25 years. She thought it would have really prepared her for her job at the South Dakota Welcome Center, which is part of a rest stop on Interstate 90 near Valley Springs and the Minnesota border.

That’s not exactly the case.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Nelson said with a laugh.

While having a knowledge of South Dakota history helps, the state does a good job of educating welcome center employees on the history and highlights of the state and towns within it, she said.

Mary Lou Nelson has worked at the South Dakota Welcome Center on Interstate 90 near the Minnesota border for more than 20 years. She taught history in Garretson and two other school districts for more than 25 years.

Nelson’s work partner on June 3 was Howard Brown of Brandon. A retired postmaster, Brown is also an officer of the museum in Brandon.

Brown said he wanted to work at the welcome center when he retired. He’s been at the job for about 1 1/2 years.

Howard Brown is a retired postmaster. He’s interested in history. The welcome center job fits that interest and allows him to continue to interact with the public.

“It has been fun,” Brown said.

Ditto for Nelson. She’s been working at the welcome center for more than 20 years. It started as a summer job and now, it’s her retirement job.

The state has more than 40 welcome center employees, called counselors by the South Dakota Department of Tourism. The state has five welcome centers that are part of rest areas. The welcome centers opened on May 17. They are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. All but one center will close on Sept. 26.

The state has 12 other rest areas but those do not have welcome centers. There are also two visitor centers, including the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

Thursday morning at the welcome center

The buzz of restroom air hand dryers can be heard in the background as Nelson helps a traveler with a map. Several feet away, Brown is talking with travelers near a rack of brochures.

It’s a busy morning at the welcome center.

South Dakota drew 12.6 million visitors in and within the state in 2020, according to the tourism department. In 2020, visitors spent $3.5 billion in South Dakota. Tourism is one of the state’s leading industries and welcome center employees are part of that big industry.

More than 2,500 vehicles use this section of Interstate 90 daily, according to the South Dakota Department of Transportation.

“We started with about 100 a day,” Nelson said of travelers who signed the welcome center guestbook. “Now we are up to 200 a day.”

The numbers should increase as summer traveling really gears up, she said.

The number of visitors who use the rest area is likely higher than

BLACK HILLS, S.D. — Vacant gift shops, closed amusement parks, and empty tourism caves in some parts of the Black Hills – not due to a lack of demand.

Tourism businesses seeking workers, and not drawing many, causing many to cut back services or limit the days they’re open.

“Each year by this time, we usually are wrapping up our hiring process and this year, we still have a ways to go, so it’s definitely been one of the more challenging years,” said Tom Hagen, owner of Rush Mountain Adventure Park.

At the Rush Mountain Adventure Park, they’re usually staffed up and ready for a busy summer. Now, the park is only staffed up and open for about half of the week (for hours, click here.)

Owner Tom Hagen seeing potential customers drive into his amusement park, only to see them turn around.

“It’s not easy to take, cause you know that you’re looking at the revenue that you need driving back off of your property but there’s really nothing that we can do about it,” Hagen said.

But a partnership between the South Dakota Departments of Tourism and Labor and Regulation is looking to bring workers to the region.

A plan to use the state’s job dashboard, that consistently has more than 23,000 jobs.

Tourism Recruiting 10

Governor Kristi Noem, releasing a statement, hoping to shed light a workforce problem impacting South Dakotans, saying:

“We have more job openings than workers to fill them – especially in travel and tourism. This campaign will recruit more workers to our state to support tourism, our second largest industry.”

Other state officials involved in the partnership saying that they’re looking at all age groups to help solve the problem.

“We’re looking at populations, secretary (Jim) has talked about retired folks, if they maybe want to work a little bit, you know, 20 hours this summer and help out at a tourism or hospitality industry,” said Marcia Hultman, the Cabinet Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Labor & Regulation.

A partnership, that looks to help key businesses in a key part of the state’s economy, stay afloat.

“I think it’s a great program, I’m excited about it and I think it’s really going to help us,” Hagen said.

MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MONUMENT, S.D. (AP) — Gov. Kristi Noem on Monday 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, where she is suing to hold another fireworks display this summer, the Republican governor said there are many signs that tourism — the state’s second-largest industry — will make a big rebound.

Tourism spending dropped by 18% 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. She also welcomed people to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, where hundreds contracted COVID-19 and brought it back to more than two dozen states.

“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.

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’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 has drawn 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.

But with or without fireworks, there are signs that people will be lining up at tourism draws like 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.

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Tourist attractions in western South Dakota that appeared in the Academy Award-winning film “Nomadland” are seeing an increase in visitors credited to the film’s success.

Reptile Gardens and Wall Drug Store are both reporting an early bump in tourist traffic, the Rapid City Journal reported Saturday. Both were in “Nomadland,” which won best picture, best director and best actress Academy Awards.

The movie follows Fern, who after her husband dies of cancer, embarks on a road trip that highlights Badlands National Park, Wall Drug and the hands of Reptile Gardens’ curator Terry Phillips.

Wall Drug Store chairman Rick Hustead said the store has seen a 114% increase in sales over 2019 while year-to-date for 2020 showed a 92% increase.

“If it was up 10% we’d be happy, but these are extraordinary numbers,” he said. “I think we’re going into a huge season.”

Hustead said the family was approached in 2018 for the movie.

“It was amazing,” he said.

Reptile Gardens curator Terry Phillip said he spent an entire day filming with the crew. He believes the film will boost tourism for the whole state.

“You can’t go wrong with that in any way, shape or form,” he said.

The state tourism department is also anticipating a large amount of tourists to the state with the film’s awards.

“Overall, what you’ll find is we certainly noticed that film drives a great amount of inspiration for consumers,” said Katlyn Svendsen, global media and public relations director for the department.