Starting today, the U.S. Travel Association and businesses around the country that cater to travelers mark Travel and Tourism Week. This year’s theme is “travel matters” and like any good theme there are a number of ways to interpret it.

Let’s start with the obvious: money. In St. Louis County — not including Duluth — overnight visitors spend an estimated $195 million each year on things like lodging, food, and recreation. The communities of the Mesabi Iron Range, from Hoyt Lakes to Hibbing, share a piece of that pie that adds up to around a $65 million each year. Imagine if that suddenly went away! It’s not just businesses that would be affected. The average household would owe about $625 more in taxes if it weren’t for the tax revenue generated by travel and tourism.

Another obvious reason tourism matters: jobs. There are about 2,500 jobs directly or indirectly impacted by travel to the Mesabi Iron Range. I sometimes see angry blog posts and comments about “tourism jobs,” where people argue that resources shouldn’t be invested in developments that benefit visitors because hospitality jobs typically have lower wages than, say, mining jobs. But I believe that all jobs, and the people who have them, matter. This shouldn’t be an us versus them discussion. The fact is that jobs and careers in leisure and hospitality are challenging and rewarding, and excelling in them takes a special kind of person. In fact, studies have shown that people who work in the hospitality industry — even for a couple summers as teenagers — make for better employees in any industry. Why? Because they learn the “soft skills” needed to succeed in most workplaces. And in my experience of living and working here for 32 years, I can say that our area’s restaurant, bar, hotel and retail managers and owners are some of the best bosses — and people — that we have on the Iron Range.

Also, travel and tourism matter because investments in trails, parks, arts, campgrounds, events and attractions benefit more than just visitors. All developments, including new businesses like kayak or ATV rentals, restaurants, hotels, and meeting spaces that will serve visitors, are good for all of us. The products that make a region attractive to visitors improve the quality of life for the people who live there. And, the amenities that are enjoyed by locals and visitors are exactly the kinds of features that make it easier for businesses to recruit workers.

Finally, travelers and tourists give us a chance to shine. On any given day there are an average of 1,500 guests in our hotels and motels. Do we have an opportunity with every guest, from hockey parents to railroad workers, industrial sales reps to honest-to-goodness tourists, to make a good impression? Absolutely! Having people come to our communities gives us an opportunity to educate them. We have an amazing history and stories to tell (and thankfully, there are staff and volunteers in each of our communities who are helping tell those stories every day). The world needs to know how amazing we are! Having visitors in our communities gives us the perfect opening to share who we are and the great things we have to offer. More to the point, people who move to or invest in a community other than their own most likely had great experiences there as a tourist or visitor first. Let’s roll out the red carpet for each and every guest in our region!

I’ve written about how people coming to the area impact us, and reasons we should embrace travel and tourism as an important aspect of our local economy and way of life. But we have much to gain when we become travelers and tourists. Mark Twain explained it best: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” So here’s to summer travel plans. We may not all be able to travel the world, or even make it to every corner of our own state, but hopefully we can all find ways to be tourists in our own communities and discover or rediscover everything we have to offer on the Mesabi Iron Range.

Beth Pierce is the executive director of the Iron Range Tourism Bureau, a nonprofit destination marketing organization serving the communities of Hibbing, Chisholm, Buhl, Mountain Iron, Virginia, Eveleth, Fayal, Gilbert, Biwabik, Aurora, Hoyt Lakes and Embarrass. She can be reached at 218-749-8161.

Sources: Explore Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Revenue, US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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