Grace Bohnenkamp, center, prepares to lead a tour through Bluespring Caverns. The tourism industry took a hard hit, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Director of Lawrence County Tourism Tonya Chastain estimates tourism is down 36-38% throughout the state. (Lawrence County Tourism / Courtesy photo)
Grace Bohnenkamp, center, prepares to lead a tour through Bluespring Caverns. The tourism industry took a hard hit, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Director of Lawrence County Tourism Tonya Chastain estimates tourism is down 36-38% throughout the state. (Lawrence County Tourism / Courtesy photo)
BEDFORD — Rolling hills, fields of corn and underground caverns dot the southern Indiana landscape, creating a treasure trove of tourism opportunities for visitors and residents alike.

In fact, in a normal year, tourism is a booming industry for southern Indiana. In 2018, Rockport Analytics estimated $301 million was spent on tourism in the eight-county Radius Indiana region of Lawrence, Crawford, Daviess, Dubois, Greene, Martin, Orange and Washington counties. Of that, the total economic impact, meaning the money that stayed local, amounted to $157 million.

But 2020 is far from an ordinary year.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Indiana shut down, allowing only essential businesses to operate, tourism ceased. State parks allowed little more than trail hikes, casinos shut their doors and recreational businesses closed.

“Tourism came to a complete standstill,” said Blaine Parker, director of tourism and quality of place for Radius Indiana through its Discover Southern Indiana tourism initiative. “With the country on lockdown, tourism took a large hit, suffering from a trillion-dollar loss and being forced into a depression. Tourism is a large economic driver, so this loss affects workforce, state and local tax dollars, small business revenue, just to name a few.

“... It’s going to be difficult to climb out of it, and it certainly won’t happen overnight.”

So far this year, most events that drew large numbers of people into Lawrence County have been canceled, so those in the tourism industry have had to get creative in order to attract visitors to the area.

“After COVID hit, people wanted something to do,” said Tonya Chastain, director of Lawrence County Tourism, “but they want something safe, outdoors and closer to home.”

“People are getting out,” Parker said. “They’re adventuring. ... We are seeing an uptick in tourism, more travel is being done within the state’s borders. People are staying closer to home.”

Because of that, Lawrence County Tourism is focusing its social media efforts on videos of attractions and being creative to keep people engaged. A family from Fishers recently visited the area and created a video of all there was to see and do in Lawrence County. Their trip was so successful, they want to make a return visit.

“They feel like they didn’t get to see all of Lawrence County, so they want to come back,” Chastain said. “That’s what we want every family to experience. We want them to feel like there’s so much to do here that you can’t get it all done, so they’ll come back.”

Radius Indiana, through its tourism arm, Discover Southern Indiana, created what it’s calling the Ice Cream Trail. Participants snag a passport, then have it stamped at all of the ice creameries listed on the passport. Once you collect all the stamps, you can turn it in for a free T-shirt. So far, Parker has collected seven passports. She said the trail covers about 250 miles in the region and takes about 7 hours to complete. The trail includes Jiffy Treet in Bedford, Dairy Bell in Mitchell, Superburger in Paoli and Little Twirl in Livonia, among others.

“The Ice Cream Trail has been really outperforming our initial expectations,” Parker said. “It’s really proving that people want to get out, want to explore and want to have fun doing so. There are 14 stops on the passport, which takes you all over the eight-county region. ... We launched the Ice Cream Trail on July 4. We have already received seven passports back. ... We’re encouraging everyone on the trail to hashtag #theicecreamtrail, so we can follow along on their adventures.”

The goal is to market southern Indiana as a safe place to travel and encourage people to visit Lawrence County for affordable fun.

“Everything is different,” Chastain said. “We want our visitors to know our office has remained open, we’re taking this seriously and we are doing what we’re supposed to do to keep everyone safe. We want people who are looking for a different destination to come here because we still have a lot of things to do.”

One thing Chastain has noticed is how Lawrence County natives and longtime residents are taking this opportunity to explore in their own backyard.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘I’ve lived in Lawrence County my entire life and I just went to Bluespring Caverns for the first time,’ or ‘I’ve walked the Williams Covered Bridge for the first time,’” Chastain said. “Maybe they simply didn’t have the time before, but they do now, so they’re making the most of it and using that time to explore all that we have to offer.

“If you think about it, this pandemic affected everything, especially tourism. It took a hard hit, and we’ve all had to think totally out of the box on how we can bring people here safely and how we want to market ourselves. Tourism is hospitality, and hospitality was hit very hard, but we know it’ll come back stronger than ever.”

According to Visit Indiana, the brand name given to the Indiana Office of Tourism Development, 81 million people visit Indiana annually, creating $9.3 billion in spending and economic impact.
© 2020 TMNews.com, Bedford, IN.