Minnesota tourism continued its recovery in 2023 as the industry returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to projections released by the state's tourism agency.

Explore Minnesota tracked about 77 million trips throughout the state in 2019. After a drastic pandemic drop and slow but steady recovery, officials counted about 76.6 million visits in 2022. The numbers represent trips taken by both Minnesotans and out-of-state visitors.

Explore Minnesota projects a 2% increase in the number of trips taken in 2023 over the previous year. The agency's estimates show a modest increase in the number of visitors who traveled to and through central and southern Minnesota during the year and a slight decrease in the number of folks visiting the seven-county metro area and its northwest reaches.

The new study Explore Minnesota commissioned used geolocation data collected from smartphone apps between June 2022 and May 2023 — weeks before Taylor Swift drew tens of thousands to downtown Minneapolis and months before Caitlin Clark fever helped lead the Big Ten women's basketball tournament to sell out for the first time in its history.

"We're really excited," Explore Minnesota Communications and Media Relations Manager Chris Morgan said. "We definitely anticipate and are hopeful to see a year-to-year rise."

The Grand Casino in Mille Lacs County and Gull Lake were the top destinations for visitors to central Minnesota — each accounting for about 1 in 8 trips to the region. And in the metro area, nearly one-third of visitors went to the Mall of America.

The top destination in northeast Minnesota was Duluth and the Canal and Lincoln park areas. In northwest Minnesota, Lake of the Woods and Leech Lake drew the most visitors, while downtown Rochester and Treasure Island Casino were the largest draws in the southern region.

"We want people to not only visit one place in Minnesota but also to see the whole state," Morgan said. "One of our missions is to bring eyes and tourists to all destinations."

While the agency doesn't control when major pop stars or blockbuster sporting events take over the metro, Morgan said Explore Minnesota mostly concerns itself over how to get folks to stay in the state once they're already here.

"We know that events bring tourism," he said. "We want to elongate those stays."

Northeast Minnesota, which includes the North Shore and surrounding areas, saw a drop in traffic of about 6.4%.

Morgan hopes Explore Minnesota's new "Star of the North" campaign will lead to further boosts in tourism across the state and for some of the regions that saw a downturn in travel. The state Legislature set aside $25 million for the effort, which Morgan said is meant to draw tourists to every region in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Explore Minnesota also estimates that people of color only account for about 11% of the trips taken in 2023. Black and brown vacationers have long worked to diversify outdoor spaces, regularly citing a lack of comfort in predominantly white and rural regions of the state.

That's why Morgan said the agency's latest ad blitz is looking to make sure it "celebrates all of Minnesota's diversity, cultures and its many heritages and communities."

After all, Morgan said, the more people travel, the more money flows through local economies.

"When we have more visitors, the local businesses benefit, the bigger businesses benefit," Morgan said. "The citizens of Minnesota benefit."