Lewis and Clark tourism not living up to hype

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In Idaho, boxes of Lewis and Clark refrigerator magnets occupy the back room of Dave Hunt’s gift shop.

In Great Falls, Mont., dismal orders for advance tickets haunt an upcoming festival pegged to the bicentennial of the explorers’ push into the Rockies.

On the Missouri River, Williston, N.D., hotel operator Tom Kasperson says the effect of Lewis and Clark tourism on his business has been “Zero.”

Truckloads of “Corps of Discovery II” exhibits, bound for the Pacific coast by year’s end, reached Kasperson’s town in March. Moving at the pace of the original expedition, the National Park Service’s road show confirmed his suspicions that Lewis and Clark buffs rarely travel in herds.

“We know they’re out there following the trail, but they seem to prefer campers and RVs,” Kasperson said. “They’re just not flooding into the hotels. Not yet, at least.”

The nation’s observances kicked off in earnest in 2003. Bicentennial events will continue through September 2006, or 200 years to the month after Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and a weathered band of soldiers paddled back to St. Louis after 28 months in the western wilderness.

Millions of tourists were expected to embark on their own journeys of discovery. But gasoline prices soared, media attention waned and “Lewis and Clark fatigue” set in. So did reality. Despite historian Stephen Ambrose’s prediction that one-quarter of the U.S. population would involve itself in the bicentennial, how many want to hightail to Williston, N.D. – honestly?

With the cross-country commemoration halfway complete, the tourism “certainly hasn’t lived up to some of the predictions,” said Steve Adams, superintendent of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

Tourism never was the bicentennial’s sole objective, he said.

Lewis and Clark interpretive centers will continue to serve as hosts for school field trips; improved parks and roads will serve a traveling public; and Native American tribes hope to further a dialogue to set the historical record straight.

Last year, organizers had little difficulty drawing hundreds of thousands of people to signature events in St. Louis and, for the July Fourth weekend, in Kansas City and Leavenworth.

The real challenge awaited upstream, where the Missouri meandered past flat, lightly populated places never considered as tourist destinations.

Many towns such as Elk Point, S.D., planned for years, pored through local history files and prepared roadside attractions for the bicentennial.

“At first they were talking about this huge bustle of people coming through town, but I never thought we’d see busloads,” said Barb Wurtz, co-owner of Elk Point’s Pioneer Drug and its old-fashioned soda fountain. “Mostly it’s been families driving around, a couple of camping groups, couple of motorcycle groups.

“Actually, we just like seeing couples come in their cars. It gives us an opportunity to talk,” and maybe they’ll return home and tell their friends about Elk Point.

Washington state tourism officials recently downsized projections of up to 10 million visitors. Now it appears closer to 1 million.

“I couldn’t see how 10 million people could even fit into Idaho,” said Hunt, of Treasure Mountain Gifts in Lewiston, a wholesaler of bicentennial knickknacks. “We’re already seeing some outlets holding inventory reduction sales. They’re very cautious of buying any more.”

North Dakotans claim a special bond with the Lewis and Clark expedition, which spent the winter of 1804-05 north of present-day Bismarck. There the corps met a teenaged Sacagawea, who served as guide and translator for the voyage west.

Increased traffic last year allowed North Dakota to bust out of last place in tourism revenue, but not by much. David Borlaug of the Lewis and Clark-Fort Mandan Foundation said the state crept up to 49th place, relegating Kansas to 50th.

“For St. Louis, Kansas City and Portland, a Lewis and Clark event is just a blip,” Borlaug said. “With this bicentennial, North Dakota is just beginning to just get its due.”

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