Continued rebound: Area officials anticipate strong tourism season

Following a strong tourism year in 2021, tri-state-area officials are ready for another busy season.

“I don’t want to say getting back to normal because I don’t know what that looks like anymore, but I think we’re evolving,” said Keith Rahe, president and CEO of Travel Dubuque.

He said the area’s wide variety of activities, from casinos and museums to historical sites and natural areas, helped attract high visitor numbers last year in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, he hopes, will mark a continued rise in guests.

In a recent Dubuque City Council work session, Rahe told council members that hotel occupancy in the city of Dubuque was 53.9% in 2021. That was a big jump from the pandemic low of 40.8% in 2020, although still below 2019’s occupancy rate of about 62%.

“We continue to be an incredibly strong market for weekend (travel),” Rahe said during the work session. “It’s that midweek travel, corporate business travel, that just has not come back, and we’re not unique in that. Every market you talk to has experienced that same thing.”

Rose Noble, president and CEO of Galena (Ill.) Country Tourism, said that as COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease, some travelers might resume vacations to faraway destinations.

“People may not do as much state travel as the last few years because they might feel a little more comfortable with the numbers going down,” she said. “But people are still looking for small towns, rural destinations and drive-to destinations, so we feel we are definitely going to continue doing good business in 2022.”

ON THE WATERA growing segment of the area’s tourism economy is riverboat cruises, whose travelers disembark and patronize Dubuque’s hotels, museums, shops and restaurants.

In 2021, nearly 13,000 passengers entered the Port of Dubuque from four riverboat companies that made a total of 102 stops in the city.

“It’s another way for us to expand our brand and take advantage of the river,” Rahe said. “That’s the thing that makes Dubuque a unique destination — the beautiful Mississippi River that flows right outside our door.”

Travel Dubuque officials are excited for the arrival of Viking River Cruises, which is scheduled for 10 stops in Dubuque this summer, beginning in July. Viking will contribute to a total of 125 planned stops among all the riverboat companies in the city this year.

In a 20-year agreement with Viking, the City of Dubuque is constructing a $1.8 million dock near Grand Harbor Resort and Water Park. Viking will pay nearly half the construction cost in exchange for exclusive docking rights while its vessel is in the city.

Assistant City Engineer Bob Schiesl said construction on the dock will begin this spring.

Several other riverboat companies have expressed interest in similar agreements with the city, but Schiesl said no formal plans are in place. However, he noted that the dock will be designed “so that it can be expanded to potentially accommodate two boats at one time.”

“The river cruise industry and expanding that would just be a huge economic benefit for the Dubuque and tri-state area and the tourism industry,” he said.

RETURN OF EVENTSNoble said the relaxation of pandemic restrictions also has allowed for the return of traditional events and festivals.

“At the beginning of 2021, events were still questionable, so there were some that were postponed or didn’t happen,” she said. “Most of our annual festivals are scheduled to take place this year, and those are so crucial to our community. They bring in a lot of tax dollars for visitor spending.”

Rahe said the second Major League Baseball game at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, will be a major tourism driver this summer, as well as a series of youth baseball tournaments held at Dyersville complexes in a partnership between Dyersville-based All-Star Ballpark Heaven and Baseball Factory.

Across the 10 scheduled tournaments, a total of 300 teams already are registered, according to a Dyersville Area Chamber of Commerce newsletter.

“That has ratcheted up a lot of business here for our properties,” Rahe said.

He also looks forward to the first Regional Mid-America H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) Rally, a gathering of Harley-Davidson motorcycle enthusiasts to be hosted by Hotel Julien Dubuque in July. The rally will feature self-guided and guided rides to a variety of Iowa attractions related to the film, television and music industry.

Dwight Hopfauf, general manager of Hotel Julien, said more than 500 people already are registered to attend the rally, and he expects that number to double.

“Our hotel has been booked (for those days) since November, basically,” he said.