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Annual Report | Tourism: Economy depends on visitors

Fishing is good whether in a fancy fishing boat or just casting off a fishing dock like this one at Lake Bemidji State Park. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - Tourism is the No. 1 draw for the Bemidji area, said Denelle Hilliard, executive director of


VisitBemidji was established in 1987 as the Visitors and Convention Bureau when the city saw a need to market tourism. VisitBemidji, as the organization is now known, works to bring visitors to Bemidji and then turns them over to the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce once they get to town.

The hospitality and leisure industry employs nearly 2,000 people in the Bemidji area, making it the third largest industry behind education/health services and trade/transportation/utilities, according to Explore Minnesota Tourism.

Hilliard said it has surpassed logging, making it one of Bemidji's greatest assets.

Tourists are a big part of Bemidji's economic development, Lori Paris, president of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, said.

"Tourists ensure that those businesses in the hospitality industry are successful," Paris said. "They provide security for those businesses that are open year-round."

One business attracting tourists year-round is Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge, which has been open since 1915 and has been owned by Randy Ruttger's family since 1937.

"As far back as 80 years ago, tourists would come here to escape the heat," Ruttger said. "There was no air conditioning, so people who could afford to come north for long periods of time would."

While tourism is an industry that has always been part of Bemidji, Hilliard said it is a constantly changing industry.

"People used to take one- to two-week vacations, but now it's more of four- to five-day vacations," Hilliard said. "We also see more in-state visitors and less of the Chicago or Wisconsin visitors."

Not only have the people taking the vacations changed, but so has the competition.

"It's hard to identify your uniqueness," Hilliard said. "We have to stand out compared to all the other vacation spots, so our marketing efforts have changed."

As far as she's concerned, Hilliard said she doesn't see the future of the tourism industry changing too drastically.

"I don't foresee a huge change in how we know tourism today," Hilliard said. "How they make their decisions on where to go and how they're getting that information is what will continue to change."

Even through the recession, businesses like Ruttger's didn't see a decline, Ruttger said.

"Since the recession, fewer people are flying, and they're staying in America," Ruttger said. "It's easy to hop in the car from Iowa, Wisconsin, even Nebraska and come here. We're a convenient location, which is why I think our business wasn't affected by the recession. Minnesota vacations are still relatively affordable, plus we think they're more fun."

The new goal for

VisitBemidji is to sell the city for what it is, Hilliard said.

"Tourism will always be here," Hilliard said. "It's such a natural resource, that no matter how many gadgets kids have, there's nothing like the great outdoors."