Is Nebraska Tourism Failing Our State?

Why Was Halsey National Forest Disappointing and How It’s Reflective of Nebraska Tourism As A Whole

halsey national forest nebraska

Ok, before I continue, I want to be very clear that the entire reason for this blog is to show Nebraskans that our state really DOES have great travel opportunities right here in our backyard!
So, I was REALLY excited to head to the Nebraska National Forest!!! Maybe my expectations were way too high, because when you talk to others who have been to Halsey State Park, they rave about it.

  • Stunning
  • Peaceful
  • Gorgeous

Those are all the things that you often hear about Halsey.  And they are not wrong! (Read my post on what there is to do in the Halsey National Forest here)
Maybe it wasn’t the forest itself that I was disappointed in, but instead had the extreme frustration seeing all of the potential that the forest had.

And the more that I thought about it, I realized that the Halsey Forest was basically a mirror to Nebraska tourism and what is lacking.

Can I tell you one of my guilty pleasures?
Rupaul’s Drag Race! I LOVE IT!!! But what do Drag Queens have to do with a pretty Red State???
Ru says at the end of every episode, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else!?”
Again, how does that relate to Nebraska tourism?  Stick with me….

Here’s what I don’t understand.

Nebraskans are FIERCELY proud people.  Like some of the proudest (yet simultaneously humble!) people, especially when it comes to our state.  In fact, when I lived abroad, I would always get asked why I love Nebraska so much.  I’d let them really hear it!

I’d boast all about our stunning sunsets, how Omaha is actually a really big city (No, it’s not ALL cornfields!!), I’d let them in on our little secret of delicious Runzas and exclaim how we have Warren Buffet (and actually one of the highest millionaires per capita!)

I’d continue to ramble on about how I’m convinced that we have some of the nicest people in the country and do a little giggle as I tried to explain what a “finger wave” is while driving (and no, not the middle finger).

I’d tell them that Omaha is a secret hidden gem: low cost of living yet on the verge of amazing things.  Shoot, it’s often been dubbed “Silicone Prairie” due to all the tech going on.

And should we chat for a few minutes about how Nebraska has the top three counties in the country for beef production?  Yeah….next time you dig into that delicious steak, you probably want to thank a Nebraskan!!!

And flat??? No, get off I-80 and most people are stunned with the geography that Nebraska has to offer!

And the great thing is that I’m not alone in these thoughts.  Ask any born and raised Nebraskan how they feel about our state and you’ll get similar answers.

Yet, when you ask a Nebraskan what there is to do (for travel) in Nebraska, they often come up blank (or with a short list).   And I honestly was no exception to that even just a few years ago.
In fact, when I started this blog and started doing research, I was blown away with what to do in NebraskaI kind of felt lied to!!! Like, “Hey!!! Why didn’t anyone tell me there were these awesome things to do right here in my own backyard!?”

Likewise, when you ask a Nebraskan where they like to travel or vacation to, they’ll be willing to drive 7 hours to Branson from the SE part of the state, or 5 to Denver from the Northeast of NE.  Of course most Nebraskans are willing to spend half a day flying out of state as well.
But spend 5 hours driving to the middle of the state?  Drive 8 hours to the other end of the state?  Forget about it.  It rarely is on our radars.

WHY!?!?

Well, If we don’t love on our own state… If we don’t brag on what there is to do here, how do we ever expect to attract others to do the same!? (If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love anyone else!?”)  Ok, maybe it’s not an EXACT analogy.  But if we can’t convince ourselves to travel locally, then why should anyone else want to come to explore Nebraska?

And maybe I look at this differently than an average Cornhusker.  You see, maybe a local Nebraskan says things like,

“Shhh! We don’t want our beautiful state overrun with tourists!”

or

“Why should I care if Nebraska has a high tourism rate”

or worse yet,

“Well, we really DON’T have anything to travel to here.”

Well, my friends…..tourism is a HUGE industry with massive amounts of taxes from outsiders.  Those taxes go STRAIGHT into our local communities.  Those taxes can be turned around and used on our roads (Which, if you’ve ever driven in Omaha in the spring, we all know THAT could be WELL improved upon!) Taxes ultimately can go into a lot of local infrastructure (all those communities devastated by the March 2019 floods?? Yeah, tourism taxes have the potential to help restore those water lines and sewage systems!)

And another thing that makes Nebraska great?  All our local businesses!  With local tourism, even to our small towns, EVERYONE benefits!  More people to our attractions means more customers to our nearby Mom and Pop shops, our locally owned restaurants, and more!  More tourists equal more money straight into our communities no matter how you look at it.

So, how does Halsey National forest represent all that is wrong with our views on local tourism?  Let’s talk about it.
(Sidebar: I am well aware that this is a National forest, therefore maybe I truly am comparing apples to oranges here.  However, I still think it’s a valid thing to look at, as many of our State’s gems have very similar traits)

Where is the Press?

Did you even know about Halsey National Park?  Were you even aware that Nebraska has the largest man made forest in the US (once was top for the WORLD! Darn you China for bumping us out of #1!) ?

I’ll be honest.  Until I took it upon my personal mission for this blog to start exploring Nebraska, I actually had no idea.

Why isn’t Nebraska Tourism, Thedford CO and Blaine CO doing everything they can to get the word out?? (I mean, I know the answer.  It starts with an “M” and rhymes with “honey”…..but how could we get more money to fund these things?? See the above point!)

Lack of Infrastructure and Amenities

Ok, so let’s say you DO head to Halsey.  What next?

When I say lack of infrastructure, in this case, I’m not saying there aren’t roads, schools, and hospitals in the area.  A tourist infrastructure is all of that…and more.

If you want to do some Nebraska National Forest camping, great!  But if you’d rather a warm bed or cool A/C and your own bathroom at the end of a day out in the elements, you are extremely limited on nearby hotel options.  Forget about AirBnbs in the area…they really don’t exist.

And when I say amenities, I am not trying to be some fancy high- end traveler.  I mean amenities in the sense of “What else is there besides trees here?”

The local community does what they can, but just outside of the Bessey Ranger District, there was only one small General store that was selling goods for an insanely high price (hey, I don’t blame them- when they are all there is, they can do what they want, that’s capitalism at it’s finest!), not a large (ok or even small) selection of places to eat, and AT the forest itself, there wasn’t a list of a ton of things you can do that other locations might offer (horseback riding, archery, educational hikes, other outdoor activities, etc)

And by this point, I’m making an unrealistic argument, but it just stinks that the only way to realistically get around the state is by car.  There are no ideal train lines, flights, etc.  (But I’m aware that no amount of tourism is probably going to fix that…but one can dream, right!?)

Step It Up Already!

I was SO excited to go to Halsey.  As a city gal, I can’t tell you how much I love nature, hiking, and getting away from it all.  Halsey sounded perfect on paper!
We get there and there is one, literally ONE hike in all of the Halsey National Forest.  Here we are in a HUGE forest…and yet there is only one freaking hiking trail!? How is that possible??  AND it’s a 6 mile round trip trek!

  • What about people who want to come for a weekend of hikes?  They are just going to keep doing the same hike every day?
  • What about families that maybe just want a 30 minute or 1-hour jaunt per day through the sandhills and forest?

And it’s not like the forest isn’t capable of not having that.

Halsey has a phenomenal run of trails for ATVs (like, legit impressive).  Why can’t even just one or two of those be turned into hiking paths??
And again, maybe I actually know the answer?  Maybe I just don’t know the “target audience” of Nebraska.  Maybe the forest knows not to put in the time, effort, and ultimately money into hiking trails because maybe a Nebraskan IS more likely to hop on an ATV than lace up some hiking boots.

The Middle Loup already has a reputation behind its name for spending lazy hours tanking down its slow steam with a cold drink in hand and good company nearby.

Why not use that to our advantage!?  There are limited outfitters in the area.  What an amazing thing to offer to people (and people outside of Nebraska will rush at the opportunity to do something as bizarre as float down a river in a horse tank!) And why not really push other water sports in the area such as kayaking and canoeing.  Yes…these are all available there now, but they are not well known or advertised to.

There were no maps of the park (just of the campground).  There were no playgrounds for families.  There were no general stores on site, no restaurants.
Again…..I get it.  It all boils down to money, but I looked at the park and saw this huge, gaping potential and my heart just broke for all that it COULD be.

My heart broke because it is flooded with love and pride for our state, yet we as Nebraskans won’t show off our own gems (or even know they are here).

Tourism and Memories are More than Just a Dot on a Map

You don’t fly all the way to Paris to just look at the Eiffel Tower for a few hours.  You get sucked into the Parisian feeling walking the streets, stopping in at a Patisserie for a fresh croissant, or sitting at a sidewalk cafe with a cappucino.  You go to other places like the Louvre while you are there.

And no, no small Nebraska town is ever going to compete with big cities (so again….maybe apples and oranges?) but my point is that it takes more than just ONE attraction at a single location to create an ambiance to a place.

It takes the main attraction working with the local community, each contribution being a piece to a bigger puzzle that creates a larger picture.  A picture of “Come here for a good time!” (and not in the scribbled on a bathroom wall kind of way- but in a legit, if you come to our destination, you are going to be so surprised with the amazing time you’ll have overall!)

I’ve been to similar places before though that with just a few tweaks made it a location I’ve clamored to go back to.

  • Put a few water outfitters ON the water to make it easy for travelers to rent a canoe or tank and get going
  • Put a small food shack down by the river.  Who wouldn’t love some brats and beers lounging by the cool water?
  • Have a few easy and quick hikes that anybody can do
  • MAPS! (I seriously just didn’t understand why this wasn’t there)
  • Add in some activities that people can do on site

Nebraska Isn’t Staying Up With The Times

I’m not sure how much or how little you know about bloggers and “influencers” (Ugh, I hate that word).  But bloggers are a huge part of media today.  And yet, Nebraska (as a whole) doesn’t look at this medium the way surrounding states do.

I can’t tell you how many press opportunities Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, and South Dakota (just to name a few) are begging for bloggers to come and show off their state.

They are literally offering free trips to bloggers to come and explore, dive in, and fall in love with their states in exchange for their honest impressions of their destinations.  And guess what?  Those bloggers go back to their computers and write about how amazing that hidden gem in the Midwest was.  Those bloggers are blasting Instagram with amazing photos that make you immediately want to put that location on your #Bucketlist.

But where is YOUR #NEBucketlist? Do you even have one? (Here’s mine by the way)

Have you ever considered staying in Nebraska instead of touring out of state??

And I’m not saying you need an “influencer” (bleh!) to influence you to go to a destination.  But I am saying that those articles and Instas often convert well for those locations.  It gets the word out, it gets people excited to go there-to a place where they might not have even had on their radar previously.

And where is Nebraska in on all that!?  I hate to throw anyone under the bus, but Nebraska tourism as a whole doesn’t really “get” this, and therefore while surrounding states are taking off with tourism, we are left in the dust to solidify our “flyover state” status. (Again- sweeping general statements here.  Yes, there are a few brands and companies in NE that see the benefit of this.  If you are one of them, right now is the time that I profusely say THANK YOU)

My Final Thoughts

It’s really hard for me to be so negative in this post and on this site towards Nebraska.  It goes against everything I have wanted to build this blog for.  In fact, I have debated deleting this whole post at least a dozen times, afraid that it’s going to come off the wrong way (that I don’t love Nebraska, that I don’t think that Nebraska is worth traveling in…)

The entire purpose of WellTraveledNebraskan is to create love and passion for exploring our own state.  It’s to create a tribe of people who are Well Traveled IN Nebraska!  And I am going to continue to do that.  I am going to continue to explore the whole state and hopefully ignite some intrigue in others.  I’m going to continue to look for hidden gems and local communities that are working their buts off to show off how awesome they (and therefore Nebraska) are!!!

But then I see these locations.  I see all the potential tourists driving (or flying) right by.  I see all the families looking for close summer trips….and then heading to the next state over (which is just as long of a drive).

I see some really freaking awesome, unique attractions in our state, and then feel like with just the tiniest bit of confidence, a boost to their infrastructure, some name recognition, and ok yes, maybe some $, that Nebraska could go from the last state in the country for tourism (yup, that’s another fun fact for NE) to….well…. NOT the last one!

My passion on this blog is inspiring other local Nebraskans to love travel as much as I do…right here IN Nebraska.  When people ask why you love Nebraska so much I want you to be able to boast about Stargazing parties at Merrit Reservoir, about sky diving in Nebraska over the prairies or how you spent an amazing jam-packed weekend doing everything there is to do at Amazing Mahoney State Park! I want you to talk about the other-worldly feeling at Toadstool and rave about the amazing hikes you did in the US’ largest man-made forest!!!

But the reality is.

How in the hell are we going to get others to want to visit Nebraska if we don’t want to ourselves!?

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