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Ask Nathan Warden what he loves about Minnesota and he sounds like he's a paid booster for the state's tourism industry.

Warden and his family take full advantage of the area's amenities, from Gopher and Saints games and Orchestra Hall concerts to walks on the Stone Arch Bridge and trips to Lake Mille Lacs.

"It's a fun state and we love being here," said Warden, community education director for the Le Sueur-Henderson Public Schools.

Warden wanted to know what drew visitors from neighboring states here and where they came from. He asked Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reader-powered reporting project: "Is it Valleyfair? Visit our lakes? See a professional sports team? What's the biggest draw?"

Who is visiting Minnesota?

Minnesotans make up a narrow majority of overall tourism travel within the state, with out-of-state visitors accounting for 45% of Minnesota's tourism, according to the most recent third-quarter data from Explore Minnesota, the state's tourism agency.

Wisconsin residents comprised the largest share of out-of-state visitors in that period, followed by Iowa, North Dakota, Illinois and South Dakota. Explore Minnesota estimates that 77 million people visited Minnesota in 2022, a figure that includes locals making long-distance trips in the state.

These visits are crucial as Minnesota tourism is still recovering from the pandemic leisure travel plunge, the unrest after the police killing of George Floyd, and a decline of business travel — which especially impacts hotels and restaurants catering to corporate visitors.

Visitors to Minnesota spent about $13 billion in 2022 on travel, hotels, dining, entertainment and other costs, rebounding for the first time to pre-pandemic 2019 spending levels. While travel spending in the state is up, it is not on par with a national increase of 4% since 2019.

That spending also generates revenue for governments through both broad sales taxes and those focused on tourism — like hotel taxes. Each household would need to be taxed an additional $985 to replace the visitor-generated taxes received by state and local governments last year, according to Explore Minnesota.

Why tourists visit the Twin Cities

The largest share of Minnesota's out-of-state visitors head to the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

"When you're talking about a city destination, an overwhelming number of visitors are from the surrounding region," said Courtney Ries, senior vice president of destination branding and strategy for Meet Minneapolis, the city's convention and visitors bureau. "That's true across the country."

Where are they headed? A survey by Meet Minneapolis found that these were the biggest draws for people in Minnesota and surrounding states to visit the metro area:

  • Ethnic, trendy and fine-dining restaurants.
  • The Mall of America.
  • Live concerts and other events (Think Taylor Swift at U.S. Bank Stadium in June).
  • Friends and family.
  • Minnesota Twins games.
  • Shopping.
  • Minnesota Vikings games.
Minnesota Twins left fielder Trevor Larnach gets a hit at bat with the downtown Minneapolis skyline as a back drop on opening day at Target Field in 2023.
Minnesota Twins left fielder Trevor Larnach gets a hit at bat with the downtown Minneapolis skyline as a back drop on opening day at Target Field in 2023.

Elizabeth Flores / Star Tribune

"Minnesota is uniquely positioned in that we have all of the major professional sports," said Christopher Morgan, an Explore Minnesota spokesman.

Greater Minnesota's core attractions

Outside of the metro area, Explore Minnesota has identified a variety of top attractions by region.

  • Central: Fishing at Gull Lake and Lake Mille Lacs; resorts with golf courses; Brainerd International Speedway; and downtown Alexandria and Nisswa.
  • Northeast: Duluth; casinos; the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park; and downtown Two Harbors and Grand Marais.
  • Northwest: Downtown Bemidji, East Grand Forks and Moorhead; casinos; Soo Pass Ranch, home of the We Fest Country Music Festival.
  • Southern: Rochester, including the Art Museum and Mayo Civic Center; downtown Mankato, Red Wing, New Ulm and Winona.

The state's reputation for peaceful woods and forests lures neighbors as well.

Gooseberry Falls State Park in 2016.
Gooseberry Falls State Park in 2016.

Brian Peterson / Star Tribune

Cascade River, Gooseberry Falls, Interstate, Minneopa and Temperance River state parks are the most popular for visitors who traveled 50 miles or more, Explore Minnesota said.

And let's not forget the lakes: "The Land of 10,000 Lakes" draws many to experience what state residents often take for granted.

"Northern Minnesota especially has that campy feel, the classic resort scene that you really can't get everywhere in the United States," said Frank Soukup, marketing director for Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, Minn. "Whether it's large resorts like ours or the smaller ma-and-pa resorts that have been around forever, that's one of the really cool things here."

Cami Calhoun spent 30 summers vacationing at Geneva Beach Resort in Alexandria before she purchased it and moved back to Minnesota from Iowa with her husband. She gets regular visitors from Iowa, North and South Dakota and even Illinois to the resort's 17 cabins.

"The majority of our out-of-staters, they're re-bookers," she said. "They book the same week every summer."

Calhoun finds that although neighboring states are so close, their wide open prairies are very different. That gives Minnesota unique appeal for those residents.

"Iowa is flat and wide open. When you're out and about, you can see far away. Where when you come to Minnesota, it's trees and hills and curves," she said. "The landscape is completely different. Even when you're driving down the interstate, it just feels different in Minnesota."

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Read more Curious Minnesota stories:

Why are all of Minnesota's pro teams named after the state, not a city?

Why do so many Twin Cities mall names end in "dale"?

How many WPA projects were built in Minnesota as part of FDR's New Deal?

Why do Minnesotans have accents?

Does water really only flow out of Minnesota — not into it?

What are Minnesota's most exported products?