SCHANEMAN: Visitors from another country see Panhandle with fresh eyes (copy)

A view from the Scotts Bluff National Monument.

GERING — Gering, Scottsbluff, Terrytown and Scotts Bluff County are joining together to commemorate National Travel and Tourism Week, May 5-11. They will join cities and convention and visitors bureaus nationwide that champion travel and tourism.

The first full week of May is annually recognized as National Travel and Tourism Week. Events are conducted in cities, states and travel businesses nationwide to highlight the power of tourism.

This year marks the 36th year of tourism week.

In Scotts Bluff County, 289,000 people travel annually to the area. On a local level, 680 jobs are created due to tourism. That creates an annual influx of over $44.7 million in direct travel spending in our area, generating $11.8 million in state and local revenues from tourism expenditures

This year’s national theme is “Travel matters.”

“It matters to local economies and communities,” said Karla Neidan-Streeks, director of Gering's Visitors Bureau.

The week kicks off on Monday, May 6 at the Scotts Bluff National Monument with a proclamation about tourism.

“The monument has a big birthday this year and we wanted to celebrate with them,” Brenda Leisy, Scotts Bluff County Tourism director, said. “It’s a wonderful event that brings the mayors out”

Leisy said when the mayors read the proclamation, complete with tourism statistics, that is when it “hits home” and people begin to understand the impact tourism has in their town.

Staff at the monument will also provide an update on how things are progressing on the renovation of the visitor center. The proclamation will also be read into the record during that evening’s Scotts Bluff County Commissioners meeting for the final kickoff event of the week.

On Tuesday, tourism events shift to the Western Nebraska Regional Airport where Leisy and Neidan-Streeks will talk more about the importance of having an airport nearby in relation to tourism.

“We feel the airport is important to our community,” Leisy said. “Whether people are bringing in speakers, teaming up with the Old West Balloon Fest or something else, a lot of people are using our airport for tourism.”

In addition to snacks and treats, airport officials will speak about the airport and how well SkyWest has been doing.

“The airline is important to our industry,” Leisy said.

Wednesday is the traditional “wear red for tourism” day. It has been an event for more than two decades.

“We ask people to join us to signal unity across the nation for support of the industry,” Neidan-Streeks said. “Everyone is encouraged to wear red to signal their support of our local tourism.”

John Ricks, Nebraska tourism director, will also be in town to celebrate the day. He will be speaking at an invite-only luncheon to discuss Nebraska’s new tourism campaign.

On Thursday, it’s all about the Nebraska Passport program, which sees participants from within Nebraska as well as nationally.

“It gives everyone the opportunity to get out and see Nebraska,” Leisy said.

The passport consists of several categories with 10 stops in each category. You don’t have to visit everything if you don’t want to.

“You can pick the things that appeal to you the most,” Leisy said. “It’s fun for the whole family.”

Western Nebraska has six stops — the Scotts Bluff National Monument, Lake Minatare Recreational Area, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, the Pink Palace, the Bayard Depot and the Mixing Bowl.

“The state picks unique things that visitors and Nebraskans can go see,” Neidan-Streeks said.

On Thursday only, the first 10 people at each stop can get their passports stamped and will receive a gift from the tourism department.

Leisy said because of the flooding in the eastern part of the state, some stops were changed and she is hoping to have the new ones by Wednesday.

“We are hoping that John will deliver those to us,” Leisy said. “If not, we will lead you to an app to start your local program.”

The passport program runs from May 1 to Sept. 30.

Each year, there is also some hospitality training for frontline and hospitality employees so they are well-equipped to help visitors.

With the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon championships being held in western Nebraska in 2019, 2020 and 2021, those frontline employees will spend Friday learning Balloon 101 at the Mitchell Airfield.

“Anyone who works in those frontline industries, be it hotels, restaurants, service stations, or the people who make it possible are invited to come out and learn,” Neidan-Streeks said.

Old West Balloon Fest Event Director Colleen Johnson said the program will go on regardless of the weather conditions.

“We will be teaching everyone how a hot air balloon works, what pilots need and how a national balloon competition looks versus a regular one,” Johnson said. “Their shape is different. They ascend and descend quicker so sometimes it looks like they are crashing.”

Those who attend will get some hands-on experience as well. Close-toed shoes are required and attendees should come prepared to put a balloon together.

Other questions that will be answered during the training will include why balloons don’t fly at certain times, safety, weather and everything that goes on in a national competition.

“People will be here for a solid 10 days in August,” Johnson said. “When they come in some place for the first time and have questions, we want to make sure that person understands ballooning.”

After training, two front-line employees and two sponsors will be drawn to take a balloon ride that morning, weather permitting.

On Saturday, May 11, everyone can participate in the last day of national tourism week by running the 7.2 mile Summit to Summit race.

“If you enjoy a challenge and want to make that hike up the monument, it’s a great time,” Leisy said.

The events all week are designed to draw attention to local economies. Neidan-Streeks said she hopes the entire community will take part in the events.

“Everyone plays a role in how successful we are,” Neidan-Streeks said. “If we didn’t have cooperation and collaboration, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are.”

Space is limited at Ballooning 101. Preregistration is required by May 8 at noon by emailing bleisy@scottsbluffcounty.org or karla@visitgering.com

National Tourism Week was established when the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution in 1993 designating the week to be celebrated in May. In a White House ceremony, President Ronald Reagan signed a Presidential Proclamation urging citizens to observe the appropriate ceremonies and activities.

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