MITCHELL – The long flat shapes of hot air balloons lay stretched out on the field. As the sun starts to rise, the balloons rise too, blasts of air puffing them up from the ground. A swirl of blue and green and white starts to unfurl. Air breathes life into a balloon shaped like Humpty Dumpty, arms and legs pointing toward the gathering crowd.
These rainbows of inflated fabric stand out against the dry brown grass, surrounded by the thousands of tourists who have descended on this small western Nebraska town to watch balloons float through the sky – and breathe valuable life into the county’s tourism industry, too.
By 6:30 a.m., 67 hot air balloons fill the sky above Scotts Bluff County.
“It’s really great that small towns do these big things,” said Wendy Wickard, a resident of Bridgeport, about 45 miles away. “It’s how we can keep our little businesses open. And it is pretty here. No one would ever come here for no reason.”
Nebraska has a lot stacked against it when it comes to attracting tourists. It’s too flat, and only filled with cornfields, outsiders say. It’s flyover country and nobody lives there. In an annual survey done by a global marketing agency, Nebraska ranked as the least-likely state for travelers to want to visit for five straight years ending in 2018. To fight that, Nebraska small towns have had to get creative, hosting events that can only happen with wide-open spaces and clear skies. Things like stargazing. Turning acres of land into sports complexes. And hosting hot air balloons.
For six days in August, an estimated 15,000 people flocked to Scotts Bluff County for the eighth annual Old West Balloon Fest. And for the past four years, the festival has hosted the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon championship, drawing in even more balloons and more people from across the country and Canada.
County tourism officials have calculated that the national championship brings in $2.56 million each year – a big deal for communities whose largest industry after agriculture is tourism.
Tourism in Nebraska is a $3.6 billion industry that’s growing, said John Ricks, executive director of the Nebraska Tourism Commission. In part, he said, the growth has stemmed from the viral – yet controversial – “Honestly, it’s not for everyone” campaign launched in 2019, an attempt to change “brand apathy” toward Nebraska and get the state on more people’s vacation “shopping list,” Ricks said.
Subscribe for free
Get stories like this delivered to your inbox every Friday.
Changes to travel habits because of the pandemic, as well as a push toward sports tourism in rural areas, have also helped increase visitors.
Nebraska has climbed from the least likely state for tourists to want to visit to 45th, according to the annual Portrait of American Travelers report. This year, a quarter of those surveyed said they were interested in visiting the state, compared to 17% in years past.
The tourism commission has also seen web traffic grow – and in some markets, like Chicago, the growth has happened organically, not because of any targeted advertising.
But, even while growing, Nebraska tourism still lags far behind neighboring states. The year before the pandemic, Iowa drew in $9 billion in tourism dollars. In 2021, Wyoming and South Dakota both brought in about $4 billion through tourism. And Colorado visitors spent a whopping $21.9 billion last year.
“Our challenge right now is to get more eyeballs,” Ricks said. “More people have to see our advertising, because the advertising is really working.”
The pandemic caused Nebraska tourism dollars to drop from $3.6 billion in 2019 to $2.1 billion in 2020, but Nebraska quickly bounced back to pre-COVID levels in 2021. That rapid rebound surprised even state tourism leaders.
Part of the reason: COVID changed how many Americans planned their travel. They wanted places that were less crowded, where social distancing was possible. Places that were more affordable, and road trip friendly.
“All those factors just basically described Nebraska,” Ricks said.
Outside of Omaha and Lincoln, smaller towns have leaned into events that make use of the natural beauty Nebraska has to offer, said Brenda Leisy, director of the Scotts Bluff County Tourism Office. In the Sandhills, it’s the deep dark skies and star parties. Along the Platte River, it’s the internationally known sandhill crane migrations.
“I’m so sick of hearing how it’s flyover country and it’s flat,” Leisy said. “Anyone who says that clearly has never been west of North Platte. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
In western Nebraska, the tourism pull comes from the unexpected topography, she said. The Robidoux Rendezvous, a bike event that’s grown from 75 people to 500 in seven years, brings international visitors to Scottsbluff. The Monument Marathon draws runners trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
“We have all this open space. We just have the ability to pull in events that nobody else is trying for,” Leisy said. “There’s just no comparison in the view you get here when you’re participating in these sports.”
And then there’s the balloon festival.
Western Nebraska’s weather, empty spaces, clear skies and right amount of wind make the perfect setting for a hot air balloon competition – a key reason that Scotts Bluff County beat out all challengers for the national competition, said Colleen Johnson, the festival’s director. A competing town in Iowa got passed over for the same bid because it’s too hot, she said.
Plus, you can’t land balloons in cornfields.
For the six days of the festival, hot air balloons take over Scottsbluff and Gering. Storefronts display balloon decorations and signs welcoming pilots. Local coffee shops sell cookies shaped like hot air balloons.
While riding her horse Comanche near the Scotts Bluff National Monument, Pam Joern was flagged down by a volunteer wanting to take her and Comanche’s photo with the balloons looming in the blue sky behind them. Then she convinced Joern to come volunteer the next morning, as well.
Rodney Watts landed his balloon – the Pollinator – in a Scottsbluff yard, a normal occurrence during the festival. No one was home, so he left them a bottle of champagne and a thank you note.
The Friday of the festival, the entire valley was dusty because of the number of people chasing balloons down dirt roads, Johnson said. Locals came out of their houses to watch. Tourists stopped on the side of the road to get pictures.
“You go about your normal day – work, hiking the monument, the zoo – and you can see a balloon in the sky,” said Scottsbluff resident Matt Blaylock. “All the normal activities we have, they’re special this week.”
Hosting the national competition for four years gave the whole county a financial boost, Leisy said. This year, hotels were booked at 98% capacity. A survey of license plates during Saturday morning events found visitors from 18 states and Canada.
Beyond restaurants and hotels, a balloon festival brings its own unique purchases – the local farmers’ co-op saw boosts in propane sales from the nearly 70 balloon pilots needing fuel every day, Leisy said.
In western Nebraska, part of the tourism strategy is simply taking people by surprise, Leisy said, whether they’re driving through to get to Yellowstone, or coming for their child’s sporting event.
In the past two years, Gering and Scottsbluff have added two new baseball complexes, bringing in teams – and families looking for activities before and after games. A national youth baseball tournament brings in visitors from 13 states each year, Leisy said.
“Once we get them exposed to the beauty and the wide-open spaces and the fact that there’s no light pollution at night and you can actually see the stars – they go home and tell others about it,” said Karla Niedan-Streeks, executive director of the Gering Visitors Bureau. “That word of mouth is priceless.”
This year was Old West Balloon Fest’s last year of hosting the national competition. But Johnson still plans to flood the sky with 50 balloons next year. She’s planning to add a balloon camp for kids. She hopes spectators and balloon pilots will return to Scottsbluff with the same level of excitement.
“I have every faith I’m going to get you back once I get you here the first time,” Leisy tells visitors. “We just need the opportunity to show the rest of the world what we’re all about. And they keep coming back.”
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.