Nebraska Passport program puts new stamp on state tourism

Nebraska Passport program puts new stamp on state tourism. (MGN)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Tyler Curnes had only been in business a few months when a man walked into his Omaha art gallery and told him about a state tourism program known to boost foot traffic.

The man raved that the program had drawn an extra 600 visitors to his isolated pottery shop in rural Nebraska, Curnes said. Intrigued, Curnes applied for a listing on this year's Nebraska Passport.

The results shocked him. As one of the 80 stops on this year's passport tour, Main Street Studios and Art Gallery in Omaha's Elkhorn neighborhood has seen a surge of new customers.

"It's been astounding," said Curnes, who opened the gallery last June. "It's had a big impact on our business."

Businesses and tourist sites are clamoring to get into the Nebraska Passport program, an 8-year-old initiative designed to lure visitors to places they otherwise might not have seen. The program administered by the Nebraska Tourism Commission struggled in its early years, but has grown increasingly popular as more travelers request booklets and download the Nebraska Passport app.

The program uses a "passport" booklet to advertise a variety of restaurants, museums, stores, downtown squares and tourist attractions. Visitors can get a passport stamp for each site they visit, which allows them to win small prizes and enter into drawings for larger giveaways if they collect enough. The passports are offered at each official stop and are also available to order online.

Curnes said his business has seen more than 400 passport participants so far this summer, mostly from Omaha and Lincoln but also a few from the panhandle. He paid $100 to enroll but has already generated about $800 in sales, and he said the publicity for Elkhorn's historic business district has been even more valuable.

Nebraska tourism officials expect 40,000 participants, a significant jump from the 26,000 who joined last year, said Erin Wirth, the program's manager. During its first season in 2010, the program attracted 278 people.

The Nebraska Passport started May 1 and ends Sept. 30. As of last week, state tourism officials had distributed 29,000 passport booklets and logged roughly 11,500 app downloads.

Wirth said she gets inquiries almost daily from businesses that want a listing in next year's passport. The program, with a $200,000 budget, offers 80 official stops but received 187 applications for this year's series — and the number of applicants has increased every year, she said.

Administrators change the destinations yearly to include a variety of sites throughout Nebraska. Participants visit an average of 30 stops, and last year, 168 of them hit all 80.

"We want people to go out and explore the state," Wirth said. "We want to promote tourism in general."

The program has become so well-known that Bakers Candies in Greenwood struggles to keep its shelves stocked with sweets during the passport season, said Dianne Abel, the store's retail manager. Abel said the passport helped draw attention to the store in the small village between Omaha and Lincoln.

"It brings in a lot of business for us," she said. "I'm constantly having to reorder candy."

The Happy Jack Chalk Mine in rural central Nebraska sees its business more than double every year it gets listed as a passport stop, said Betty Carlson, the mine's co-manager.

The increased customer traffic helps pay for employee salaries, utilities and maintenance, Carlson said. Most years, the mine relies on fundraisers and donations to stay in business.

"It's been excellent for us," Carlson said. "It's helped keep us open."

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