Shale oil boom in North Dakota affecting tourism
By Shebby Lee

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American history is rife with the chronicles of boom towns — and their inevitable companion, busts — but as our population has filled in most of the nooks and crannies of this continent, opportunities for new discoveries have grown scarce.

In tourism, too, these things come and go. Remember when Branson, Mo., was advising the last visitor to leave Nashville, Tenn., to be sure and turn out the lights? And then there was the amazing Grand Canyon skywalk with its layers of tribal red tape, regulations and price gouging.

The current boom is not a tourism one, but something far more fundamental: Oil! The Bakken Oil Field discovered literally under the feet of the tiny, windblown backwater of Williston, N.D., has turned out to be one of the richest finds of this or any other century and is projected to last 30 to 50 years. It will bust like all the others — but not in my lifetime.
The Bakken Oil Field discovered literally under the feet of the tiny, windblown backwater of Williston, N.D., has turned out to be one of the richest finds of this or any other century and is projected to last 30 to 50 years.

In the meantime, it is playing havoc with some tour programs, thus providing a cautionary tale.

For years I have been touting North Dakota as an affordable tour option that offers a major bang for your buck. The state's slogan, "Legendary North Dakota," is no idle boast. Some of American history's most iconic heroes made their mark there — Lewis and Clark (the Corps met Sacagawea there, living with the Hidatsa), Sitting Bull, George Armstrong Custer, Theodore Roosevelt, Louis L'Amour, Lawrence Welk, Roger Maris and an impressive list of actors, journalists and entertainers.

But even before this parade of legends arrived following the Louisiana Purchase, North Dakota was home base for the largest and most highly sophisticated material trade culture on the upper plains. Strategically located on the upper Missouri River, the region attracted French-Canadians and British fur traders from the north, and eventually the Americans.

For those not lured by North Dakota's obvious cultural attractions, it also makes a successful mystery tour. One of America's finest outdoor musical productions — the Medora Musical — thrills thousands of patrons nightly during the summer in its breathtakingly beautiful badlands setting overlooking the Little Missouri River, with live elk, horse-drawn stagecoaches and Roughriders adding to the performance. Thanks to the current bucket-list craze of checking off those 50 states (North Dakota is often number 50), it has become an increasingly easier sell in the past few years.

But then came the boom. For years, I had begged the city fathers of Williston to build more hotels to replace the aging and shopworn inventory available. But despite its close proximity to Fort Union, one of the most pristine trading post replicas in the world, no one thought it was worth the investment to improve facilities.

Well, it's amazing the difference a little oil boom can make. All this money has created jobs, which have attracted displaced workers from all corners of the country. Since 2010, the town's population has doubled in size and will double again in the next three years, thus creating housing shortages of epic proportions.

Today there are many, many new hotels, but because jobs have far outpaced the small community's ability to provide housing (schools, facilities, infrastructure, you name it) those hotel rooms are full of residents. Any tourist who happens to wander into town is out of luck. And for tour operators who plan ahead, rooms are available at prices rivaling those of premiere destinations such as Santa Fe, N.M., and Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Goodbye to the affordable North Dakota family vacation, or value-priced mystery tour.

Not only that, the prosperity has spread throughout the state. All hotel rates have skyrocketed, even in Fargo, which is as far away from Williston as you can get and still be in the same state. The state legislature — in one of the most conservative red states in the country — is awash in tax dollars and has embarked on a spending spree the envy of the other 49 states. North Dakota is debt-free, has an enviable surplus, and the wealth is benefitting every resident in the second-least populated state in the Union.

But this, too, is a double-edged sword. A mainstay of our tours is a visit to what has always been the outstanding North Dakota Heritage Center on the Capitol Grounds in Bismarck. North Dakotans are justly proud of their heritage, and have always been traditionally generous to those preserving it for future generations. Long before the boom, this center seemed to be in a perpetual state of renovation and expansion. But throughout, visitors were always still welcome. This year, the center is closed during the peak summer visitation months, creating holes in itineraries planned more than a year ago.

The good news is that apartment complexes and housing districts are due to start coming online in Williston by the end of the year, freeing up some of the hotel space for actual visitors. While we're still taking groups to North Dakota, I'm looking forward to a return to more reasonable hotel rates and new hotels to choose from.

There is little doubt Williston will never be the same again, but it remains to be seen how it deals with both its growing pains and tremendous good fortune as the years progress. But that's a topic for another column. For now, let the good times roll!

Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA's The Insider online magazine. Her early training was in the theater and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an admiral in the Nebraska Navy.