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Minnesota tourism is bouncing back from pandemic-era lows — good news for the leisure and hospitality industry, the state's fourth-largest.

In 2022, the state recorded about 77 million visitors — a level last seen in 2019, according to Explore Minnesota, the state's tourism agency. And while 2023 figures have not been fully calculated, they are projected to be even better.

When those numbers are up, the state and its citizens are beneficiaries. The 2022 visitors (counting both those from outside the state and those traveling for leisure and entertainment within it) generated more than $13 billion in economic impact.

Minnesota's leisure and hospitality sectors have had about 250,000 employees working in resorts, hotels, restaurants, stadiums and culture and arts venues. The COVID-19 pandemic reduced those numbers by 23,000 workers compared with 2019.

But the welcome signs of recovery have come in increased average monthly hotel occupancy rates, and in the number of passengers traveling through Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Air travelers dropped to less than 15 million in 2020 but increased to 31 million in 2022, according to officials. That's still below the nearly 40 million who came through the airport in 2019.

An Explore Minnesota survey last summer found that most tourism and hospitality businesses reported being financially stable or growing, leading the agency to project a 2% increase in the number of 2023 trips over the previous year. The agency's estimates show a modest increase in visitors to and through central and southern Minnesota during the year and a slight decrease in those visiting the seven-county metro area and the northwestern reaches of the state.

But the overall encouraging news must be tempered by the losses experienced by tourism businesses that depend on winter weather. During our 2023-24 "winter that wasn't," northeastern Minnesota, which includes the North Shore and surrounding areas, saw a drop in traffic of about 6.4%.

A March 2024 Explore Minnesota survey of 323 businesses or organizations from across the state found that 91% of those groups reported negative impacts from the warmer, nearly snowless winter.

To assist those businesses, state officials from Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin asked the U.S. Small Business Administration to expand economic injury disaster loans for droughts to businesses that rely on winters with ice and snow. The loan program allows businesses to borrow up to $2 million to cover their losses, with no interest the first year and a lower rate after that.

And the Minnesota Legislature wisely invested $25 million for state tourism efforts, including the new "Star of the North" campaign that will help some of the regions that saw a downturn in travel.

Still, the upward trend in overall statewide tourism numbers is a welcome sign for the state's economy. As Explore Minnesota spokesperson Chris Morgan told the Star Tribune, "When we have more visitors, the local businesses benefit, the bigger businesses benefit [and] the citizens of Minnesota benefit."