Despite drop in visitors, Corn Palace still has national tourist appeal during COVID-19

Visitors check out the gift shop inside the Corn Palace on Tuesday in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Although the Gilmer family had to travel over 600 miles to experience a sense of normalcy, the Corn Palace provided that feeling for the Arkansas residents Tuesday morning.

While COVID-19 virus has forced travel destinations across the country to close their doors over the past three months, Mitchell’s biggest tourist attraction is open and welcoming visitors like the Gilmers. It’s been just shy of a month since the Corn Palace reopened amid coronavirus, but Corn Palace Director Doug Greenway said the landmark is slowly seeing more visitors and travelers funnel in.

“We were expecting less traffic in the early months of summer, however, we’re seeing more and more visitors making the Corn Palace a part of their trip since a lot of places where they live may still be closed,” Greenway said.

Brad Gilmer is one of those travelers who took a hard look at where he and his family would vacation this summer in the midst of the lingering pandemic. Rather than soaking up the sun on a popular beach along the West Coast, the Gilmers changed their vacation plans to include a camping trip in the Black Hills and a stop at the Corn Palace, opting to focus their travels on the outdoors and rural America.

The wide open spaces of South Dakota and the ability to social distance at attractions like Mount Rushmore and the Corn Palace helped Gilmer make the decision to bring his family to the state.


“We were going to go to the beach this year, but we feel like this area and Mount Rushmore will allow us to be a bit further apart from people. The idea was to come out here and be able to have fun and do things like camp and sight see, while still being safe,” Gilmer said, noting he and his family were tested for the virus prior to the trip. “We feel pretty confident that we can have fun on our trip and be out and about and not be exposed to the virus.”

In a good year, the Corn Palace can average 500,000 visitors and prior to March, Corn Palace officials were expecting to hit near that average. But the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed that expectation.

After a two-month closure throughout much of March and all of April, the Corn Palace reopened May 11, with tours beginning on May 18.

Since reopening, it’s clear the virus has impacted visitor numbers. From June 1-7, the Corn Palace drew a total of 4,994 visitors, down more than half from the same time period during in 2019, which was at 10,631.

Despite the threat of the virus that’s still lingering, Jason Castro, of Illinois, said the Corn Palace stop was attractive to his family considering the rural location.

“We made this trip because it is in a more rural area, away from crowded beaches and larger cities,” Castro said. “We wanted to drive for the trip as well because we found it a lot more safe than taking a plane.”

Upon entering the Corn Palace Tuesday morning, Castro said he and his family felt safe while exploring the attraction, pointing to the signage and hand sanitizers as a couple examples that contributed to the safety.

Some of the safety measures at the Corn Palace are tape markings spread at least 6 feet apart in the concession lines, along with TV monitors displaying social distance guidelines. In addition, hand sanitizer stations are set up along the entire building, and regular cleanings are done at least four times per day. For the Corn Palace staff, temperature checks are taken before entering the building.


Statewide tourist attractions opening up

With many popular tourist attractions still closed in states around the country, South Dakota has been one of few to encourage outdoor activities and promote its travel destinations. Jen Johnston, director of tourism and marketing with the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce, said a number of the state’s tourist attractions were temporarily closed prior to Memorial Day weekend, but as of now most of the travel destinations are open.

That is a major benefit for the Corn Palace, as many travelers make the Corn Palace a part of their vacation in the Black Hills. According to Johnston, roughly 80% of travelers who visit the Corn Palace are en route to a Black Hills vacation.

“We're seeing traffic primarily from our nearby states, but our state is ready and open for business, which has still helped bring travelers in the midst of the virus,” Johnston said. "Before Memorial Day weekend, we did see a lot of travelers who were furloughed and could work on the road, making a once-in-a-lifetime cross-country trip. That has dropped off lately, as we are seeing more of the week-long family travelers."

The South Dakota Tourism Department has reported a more significant drop in visitor numbers compared to the Corn Palace. Both local and state officials expect traffic to pick up as summer rolls on.

“We’re seeing less of a drop at the Corn Palace than the statewide numbers, but they anticipate traffic will pick up by the middle of August, and we could see an even stronger September and October,” Johnston said.

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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