Solar eclipse a big business

October 17, 2017 GMT

Event had an estimated economic impact of $127 million in Nebraska

LINCOLN — The day that the moon cast Nebraska into darkness proved a bright spot for the state’s economy.

The Aug. 21 solar eclipse had an estimated $127 million economic impact from lodging and travel spending across the state, according to a study done for the Nebraska Tourism Commission.

The study by Dean Runyan Associates and Destination Analysts Inc. estimated that more than 708,000 people traveled to watch the eclipse in Nebraska.

About 87 percent of the travelers came from out of state, making the eclipse the largest single tourist event on record in Nebraska.

State tourism officials, along with Lt. Gov. Mike Foley, are set to announce study results Tuesday during the 2017 Nebraska Tourism Conference in La Vista.

“This data confirms the magnitude of the solar eclipse’s impact,” said John Ricks, Nebraska Tourism executive director. “The amazing one-time event was big business for our industry and beyond. We hope travelers were inspired to share stories about their Nebraska experience and to visit again.”

The number of visitors eclipsed pre-event estimates that 500,000 visitors might come to Nebraska for the celestial show.

But the numbers were no surprise to Lora Young, executive director of the Beatrice Area Chamber of Commerce and Gage County Tourism.

She said the Beatrice area hosted an estimated 40,000 visitors on the Monday of the eclipse, including people from every state in the union and several countries.

“Nobody believed the draw until the day,” she said. “There was a lot of people in this state.”

So many showed up in Gage County, which lay in the path of the total eclipse, that all of the Beatrice-area hotels were full and the spillover filled 80 percent of the lodging in Manhattan, Kansas, Young said.

More than 3,000 people were camping at the county fairgrounds, while others camped in local parks, and the county roads were lined with vehicles.

So many showed up to view the eclipse at Homestead National Monument that some had to hoof it 6 miles from their vehicle to the visitor’s center, she said.

When it was over, Young said, visitors told her the traffic jams added five hours to a trip back to Minneapolis.

Susan Unzicker, executive director of the Alliance Chamber of Commerce, said local restaurants and lodging did very well during the days surrounding the eclipse. Some visitors spent several days, some drove in the day of the eclipse.

Thousands headed to Carhenge, the town’s quirky version of Stonehenge, to watch the eclipse. Miles of vehicles parked on the under-construction portion of U.S. 385, she said.

According to the study:

» On average, visitors spent three days in the state.

» Nearly 93 percent of out-of-state visitors said the eclipse was the reason for their visit to Nebraska, and nearly 61 percent said they would not have made this trip to Nebraska otherwise.

» Nearly 71 percent of out-of-state visitors had not visited Nebraska in the past three years on a purely leisure trip (not to visit friends or relatives). When asked, nearly 40 percent said they are likely to visit Nebraska in the next two years.

» Media coverage of the eclipse provided publicity with an estimated value of more than $133 million.

Foley praised the Nebraska Tourism Commission and the Nebraska Eclipse Coalition for their efforts in making the event “a safe and pleasurable experience for so many people.”

He also recognized the 10 cities involved in the coalition: Alliance, Beatrice, Gering, Hastings, Grand Island, Kearney, Lincoln, North Platte, Omaha and Scottsbluff.

The eclipse offered a perfect opportunity to showcase Nebraska to hundreds of thousands people from outside the state, he said.

While Nebraska isn’t slated to have another total solar eclipse this century, Young said the event offers hope for increasing tourism in the state.

“It says that, if you have an event worth coming to, people will travel,” she said, noting that people who first visited Nebraska because of the eclipse may be more willing to return for other reasons.

“People need to believe we can be a tourism destination and work toward that end,” she said.