OTHER VOICES: Supporting Nebraska tourism is good for everyone | opinion


The Nebraska legislature and Gov. Pete Ricketts have many ideas on how to spend in a state awash with cash.

Thanks in part to more than $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief, unexpected receipts from the general government fund and a large cash reserve, the governor and others are talking about big things like tax breaks, a new prison and investments in northern Omaha and more . The priority debate will dominate the current legislative period.

Here’s a humble suggestion that I hope won’t be overlooked: Nebraska should come up with additional state support to encourage tourism. It is among the issues that we believe should find bipartisan, rural and urban support to move the state forward.

Tourism is the state’s third largest industry and directly or indirectly benefits all Nebraska residents. It brings money into the economy, strengthens our cities and helps keep small businesses in our cities.

In addition, tourism confirms the value of our country to locals and outsiders. It reminds Nebraska residents of our hidden and not-so-hidden treasures—our good life. And for those just passing through on our highways or visiting with a purpose, it’s an opportunity to surprise non-Nebrascans with what we have to offer.

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We have no illusions that Nebraska’s natural treasures and attractions rival Orlando’s theme parks, the Las Vegas Strip or majestic national parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon in terms of sheer visitor numbers.

Many of us remember the hilarity that followed the self-deprecating state tourism campaign – “Nebraska. Honestly, it’s not for everyone” — playing off the fact that national rankings have somewhat underestimated our state as a potential travel destination.

In fact, anyone who’s been paying attention—particularly those who have participated in the State Tourism Commission’s popular Nebraska Passport program—knows that our state has a lot to offer:

Natural beauties like the Wildcat Hills south of Scottsbluff, Smith Falls near Valentine, or Ponca State Park overlooking the Missouri River in the northeast corner of the state.

Interesting shops like Buffalo Records in Kearney with its large collection of vinyl records or the Koffie Knection cafe in South Sioux City which, despite a name that’s a proofreader’s nightmare, serves great coffee and food in a pretty setting.

Fun activities like paddle boating on the lake at Platte River State Park or TreeRush Adventures high ropes course in Fontenelle Forest.

And many interesting restaurants, taverns, wineries and the like throughout the state, from the Bottle Rocket Brewing Co. in Seward to the Tommy Gunz Bistro on Grand Island.

Each of them was highlighted among the 70 stops on last year’s Nebraska Passport. The program’s digital app saw nearly 200,000 visits to these sites, with visitors coming from across Nebraska and 30 other states. It’s a great success.

Certainly, state policymakers can find even more ways to boost tourism by promoting and strengthening Nebraska’s attractions.

In Iowa, for example, communities can compete for grants from the state’s Enhance Iowa Board to improve local attractions such as parks, swimming pools, athletic facilities, or arts and civic centers. Last month, the board awarded nearly $5.2 million to 16 Iowa communities.

Regardless of whether this is the best idea for Nebraska to boost our state’s tourism efforts, there’s no doubt that when our tourism industry runs at full steam and our communities have the resources to make their attractions shine, the state benefits .

And the benefits aren’t limited to today’s tourist dollars. In the long run, any effort that reinforces Nebraska’s image as a “place to be” is helpful because it can help attract outsiders and keep our own people from leaving the country.

Given the toll the pandemic has taken on our economy, including tourism, the state should identify and support innovative approaches to bring more visitors and their businesses to Nebraska.

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