PIERRE, S.D. — Some weeks after telling refugees to "call me when you're an American," South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem sang a different tune about welcoming people to the Rushmore State — at least if they're coming to spend money on souvenirs and hotel rooms or work in the state's tourism industry.
At a news conference underneath the stony gaze of the presidents on Mount Rushmore on Monday, April 3, with a cement mixer roaring in the background, the Republican governor and Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen kicked off the upcoming summer tourism season by announcing the state is ready to assist in helping connect local businesses with employees with "skills, gifts, and talents," even those from far away.
"In South Dakota, I think it's very clear: we love people," said Noem. "When people travel to South Dakota, they feel welcome and appreciated."
Just last month, Noem set off rebukes in the state — including a reprimand from state-wide Lutheran and Episcopal bishops — for announcing she opposed any plan to resettle migrants to South Dakota with a tweet derided as xenophobic.
But, with the state's second largest industry — bringing in over 12 million people last year to a state with fewer than 900,000 residents — needing a shot in the arm after a year slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, including workers to serve the drinks, flip the burgers, and otherwise staff tourism-focused businesses, especially in the state's west, Noem rolled out the red carpet on Monday, sounding a more palatable note to outsiders looking for work.
"If they want to move here and be a part of our way of life, we'll welcome that, too, and it'll be absolutely wonderful," said Noem.
Specifics on the "recruitment initiative" were not immediately clear on Monday, though Noem characterized the program as a nationwide recruitment project spearheaded by the departments of Labor and Tourism.
Much of the state's seasonal workforce in years past has come via a temporary foreign workers program, and Secretary Hagen acknowledged on Monday that businesses reported applications for H-2B visas were "very slow." Still, Hagen touted the local tourism industry's performance last year relative activity in other states, saying, "we did much, much better than we expected."
"It shows the power of freedom and giving people the responsibility to travel responsibly," said Hagen, who thanked Noem for her support.
The number of visitors to South Dakota dropped by 13%, but the decline was far less severe than the levels seen nationwide. The U.S Travel Association calculates domestic travel spending in the U.S. dropped by 42% in 2020.
South Dakota, as a state, also saw one of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in the nation. The state may also be marked as highly vaccine skeptical. According to data from a Morning Consult poll, South Dakota (28%) trails only Mississippi (30%) and Idaho (29%) in percentage of the population unwilling to get vaccinated.
While South Dakota held marquee events last summer, such as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and fireworks at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which drew a presidential visit from Donald Trump, one of those events may be pulled this year.
On Friday, Noem sued the Biden administration in federal court in Pierre, alleging the Department of the Interior, headed by Secretary Deb Haaland, had reneged on a memorandum of understanding signed by previous DOI officials and Noem's team, that contractually obligates the National Park Service to hold fireworks at the granite monument in 2021.
In an email to Forum News Service, DOI officials refused to comment on the lawsuit.
On Monday, Noem took another swipe at NPS's decision to forgo fireworks this year, citing staff health and concerns from tribal partners, saying she was "very disappointed."
"It was an event that unified our country," said the governor, speaking of last year's event.
Later on Monday, Noem also spoke alongside Mayor Paul TenHaken at Falls Park in Sioux Falls on the state's eastern side.