As her family wrapped up a weekend fishing trip at Roberds Lake Resort near Faribault, Brooke Hallam said the family didn't feel the need to venture out of the state this summer.
"Minnesota is the best place to be in the summer," she said as her husband, Jake Rehling, and 6-year-old son, Aiden, got ready to head home to Oak Grove, Minn., Monday morning. "Why would you want to go anywhere else?"
Faced with rising gas prices and airfares, summer travelers seemed to be asking themselves the same thing. Minnesota resorts saw more business this summer, handing the industry its best year since the recession started.
"This is good news for everyone in the tourism industry, and for travelers, too," John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism, said in a statement.
Tourism is a $11.3 billion annual industry in Minnesota that employs about 235,000 workers and accounts for 17 percent of the state's sales tax revenue. But the uptick wasn't just in revenue. The state's travel information centers tallied more visitors this summer, as did the travel website, www.explore minnesota.com.
The end-of-summer report was based on a survey of 300 lodging and camping businesses, with 53 percent reporting an increase in business this year over last. Overall, revenue was up about 5 percent, when adjusted for inflation.
"We haven't quite turned the corner yet, but we can see the corner," said Bob Cross, who owns and operates Roberds Lake Resort with his wife, Shermayne. "We've had a good summer in terms of renting units, but the disposable income still isn't there. People used to give their kids $10 for the video games and let them stay there a while. Now they send them with 50 cents and tell them to play just one game."
Tourism officials describe the growth as "moderate," but it comes with a growing sense of optimism. In a preseason survey of the lodging and camping industry, 44 percent said they were expecting business to improve this year over last summer. Asked the same question about their expectations about the upcoming fall season, now 80 percent predicted that occupancy would be the same or better than last year.
A number of factors are responsible for the growth, officials said. Airfares and gas prices are up from last year. The national average for a gallon of regular gasoline hit $3.80 on Monday, up 14 cents from the same time last year, the highest price ever recorded during a Labor Day weekend, according to GasBuddy.com.
"Consumers continue to travel closer to home, plan trips at the last minute, and look for deals and discounts," said Explore Minnesota spokeswoman Joan Hummel. "But in spite of the sluggish economy, consumers seem more willing to spend money on travel, in part due to pent-up vacation demand after several years of restricting their travel."
At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, summer passenger traffic was down slightly. About 3 million passengers flew out of the airport in June, a drop of about 1 percent compared to a year ago. In July, about 3.2 million people flew, a drop of about 2.8 percent. August figures were not available.
"We're not seeing the kind of growth we saw before 9/11, where we typically saw 3 percent growth per year," said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. "Now we're just lucky to hold our own."
Yet even though the airlines are carrying about as many passengers as they did last year, travelers might have noticed fewer options when trying to book trips.
That's because airlines are using bigger planes and fewer flights, as Delta and others have replaced their smaller 50-seat regional planes with larger 70-seaters, Hogan said.
Heat wave helped
Even the northeast part of the state, which suffered devastating floods in June, bounced back. Part of the credit goes to the heat wave that started in late June and produced 21 consecutive days in the Twin Cities with temperatures of at least 85.
"People realized that it was 20 degrees cooler here," said Gene Shaw, spokesman for Visit Duluth. "We had our giant air conditioner, Lake Superior. It was even pulling people up from Iowa."
The only time Max and Bev Stoutenburg, a retired couple from Longville, Minn., took their camper out of the state during the summer was to visit their son's cabin in Wisconsin.
"We like being here," said Bev Stoutenburg. "We've been doing this a long time. We're on our third camper, but we started with tents and babies, and that was back in the days before disposable diapers. Now, that was camping."
Staff writer Jackie Crosby contributed to this report. Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392