It is not for everybody. How Midwestern states tempt tourists with unassuming getaways

Mount Rushmore and the Great Lakes are a couple of the Midwest’s tourist magnets, but some states have to work against their reputations to attract visitors. They are getting creative in highlighting amenities that may be a bit out of the ordinary.

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Climbing into a cattle water tank and floating down the river might seem like an odd way to spend an afternoon, but in Nebraska, “tanking” is a summer pastime.

The tanks, usually metal or plastic and about 8 feet in diameter, provide enough space for picnic tables, coolers and entire families.

Now they can include something else: tourists.

The Nebraska Tourism Commission is featuring the tank as one of the reasons people are adding the state to their vacation bucket list. The extravagance goes hand in hand with the state’s tourism catchphrase: “Nebraska. Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”

The Nebraska Tourism Commission is featuring the tank as one of the reasons people are adding the state to their vacation bucket list. This ad appeared in the travel publication “AAA Explorer” this summer. Maria Altman/Harvest Public Media

While Illinois has Chicago and Missouri the St. Louis Arch, other Midwestern states with no obvious destinations, like Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, have to work a little harder for tourism dollars.

For example, while the unconventional campaign helped Nebraska boost its 2019 pre-pandemic traveler spending at $3.5 billion, pales in comparison to Illinois’s $43.1 billion figure in 2019 or Missouri’s $17.7 billion.

Having room to grow isn’t necessarily a problem, according to Dipra Jha, a professor of hotel business management at Washington State University. She said it’s an opportunity for tourism directors to be more creative with how they engage visitors.

“These states are true tourism underdogs,” Jha said. “They are less discovered, so there is a sense of mystery about them. There is an opportunity to find something unique and build a reputation.”

Nebraska Tourism Director John Ricks said states should lean on eccentricity and unexpected treasures to counter do-it-your-heart attitudes.

He’s got a lot of work ahead of him: When Ricks surveyed people about what they thought of Nebraska, he said he got a little rude.

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They were almost like knee-jerk responses,” he said. “‘No fun, flat boring scenery, nothing to do, blah blah blah blah blah.'”

Iowa and Kansas combat similar beliefs. These states need to go beyond stock images of skylines, friends laughing in bars and walking trails, and appeal to travelers who want to discover and explore new places.

We’re just trying to rise above the parity level that a lot of tourist spots have, they’re all starting to look the same,” said Jessica O’Riley, communications manager for Iowa Tourism. “So we really wanted to find a way to break up that mess.”

Iowa advertises its flashy state fair, which features things like the famous butter cow sculpture and the Field of Dreams, the site of the movie, and more recently, a couple of Major League Baseball games. The state also highlights bike trails that host RAGBRAI, the annual eight-day Iowa-wide bike ride/party.

An aerial view of a baseball diamond, located in the middle of fields of corn and other crops.
This baseball field took center stage in the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” starring Kevin Costner. It stands out on the Iowa playground for tourists and recently hosted Major League Baseball games. Fox Sports said that Chicago White Sox vs. New York Yankees was the most watched regular season in the history of the sports network. Courtesy of the Iowa Office of Tourism

Kansas promotes working ranches that double as bed-and-breakfasts and their endless fields of sunflowers. And don’t forget the brisket, said Kansas Tourism Director Bridgette Jobe.

“Our barbecue is up there with any other barbecue anywhere,” he said. “Everyone has their favorite place and we will fight for that. And I love that, it’s one of those things that makes Kansas very special.”

Those kinds of benefits give people a reason to look beyond their perceptions and try the Midwest, Ricks said.

“You have to give people a very good reason why your status is different and intriguing,” he said. “Tell them that part, don’t tell them you have great restaurants and breweries, because those are things that everyone has. Give them the one reason why they should try Nebraska.”

A woman, a man, and a small child surround a paper tray of fried food.
Crowds flock to Ashland, Nebraska, for the local steakhouse’s “Testicle Festival” to enjoy a signature Midwestern delicacy: fried bull testicles. Also called “Rocky Mountain oysters,” Washington State University hotel management professor Dipra Jha called them an example of “cultural food.” Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism

Jha said this strategy also comes down to using honesty to connect with the right kind of tourist. Most visitors don’t come to the Midwest to enjoy cities full of bars and malls, and it might seem untrue that the heart of the country offers urban amenities.

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“People are smart enough to know what is plastic and what is authentic,” he said. “Highlighting the nightlife in your small rural town will be pointless. But highlighting the endless sky and miles and miles of farmland for someone who wants to get out of New York City can be really engaging and authentic.”

Data from tourist boards shows that unconventional marketing can work. Before the pandemic shut down travel, visitor spending had been rising steadily in each of the three states since 2016.

And O’Riley said that once people start exploring Iowa, they won’t be talking about “flyover country” anymore.

“We are seeing that the perception of Iowa is changing. And the probability of visiting it is also increasing,” she said. “So we know if we can put Iowa in front of people, their eyes wide open like, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea. There was all this stuff hidden here, and I never found out.’”

Hundreds of yellow sunflowers grow together in a field.
As the “Sunflower State,” Kansas highlights its endless fields of sunflowers. State Director of Tourism Bridgette Jobe said sunflower season is her favorite time of year and gives visitors a chance to experience the state’s agricultural roots. Courtesy of Kansas Tourism

While the pandemic brought tourism to a halt everywhere, a silver lining followed for states with wide open spaces. For people who want to stay away from the crowds, get into nature, and unplug from Zoom, the Midwest has a lot to offer.

And Midwesterners shouldn’t be shy about talking about their states, Jobe said.

It’s okay for us to tell others how wonderful we are; it’s just not in our nature to do so. We know we are a great state,” he said. “We just have never had that ability or that desire to proclaim that to the rest of the world. And we’re trying to change that.”

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: @Ekrembert This story was produced in association with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. Reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

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