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Resorts changing to meet changing demands
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Resorts and tourist attractions across Minnesota are hoping for a busy summer season. (Photo courtesy Sandy Beach Resort)
The Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start for the summer tourist season. Tourism contributes nearly $10 billion to Minnesota's economy. Resorts and other tourist-oriented businesses are hoping for a summer season that will compensate for several years of struggle.

Duluth, Minn. — When the schools let out in the Twin Cities area, Keith and Pam Rice get busy. The cabins at their Sandy Beach Resort on Gull Lake near Brainerd will be full most of the summer. Keith's grandparents built the cabins, and now their son works at the resort. It's a real family operation -- and a family destination. Families come year after year to stay here.

Terrorism and uncertain economic times haven't changed things much. Pam Rice says after the World Trade Center attacks, business was up.

"We lost some of the people that come from a distance, but we had people that were going to take trips somewhere else that came here," she says. "Because it was close, they could get someplace without flying. But I think a lot of it is, people appreciate their families more now, and they just want that time together."

But how much time is a problem.

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Image Keith and Pam Rice

Pam Rice says these days, a lot of people ask to rent a cabin for less than the traditional week. Shorter rentals mean cabins can sit empty for a few days. That can cut into the bottom line.

"We just really want to try to stay with that week," says Rice. "Saturday to Saturday. To me, you need a week to have a vacation."

Around the country, people are taking shorter vacations and staying closer to home. Barb Oswell, with the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau, says places that want more people to stay longer need to emphasize the various kinds of fun they offer.

"We market Duluth as that Lake Superior, family outdoor destination," says Oswell, "and that romantic bed-and-breakfast getaway, as well as that historic and cultural element that's so important when people are looking to travel these days."

Oswell says tourism in Duluth has been growing three times faster than national trends, a bright spot in a region struggling with mine closings and layoffs.

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Image David and Cathi Williams

Just outside Grand Marais, Cathi and David Williams have owned Bear Track Outfitters and rustic cabins for 30 years.

The recent string of wimpy winters has cheated them of what had been a growing winter season. The terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq discouraged winter visitors even more.

"It's almost ended the Christmas holiday business, because people want to stay home with their families," David Williams says.

Christmas business dropped dramatically two years ago, and stayed down last winter.

The Williamses were getting a growing number of visitors from Europe and Asia, but fear of flying and now the SARS outbreak are discouraging those travelers.

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Image Kayaking is growing in popularity

Meantime, baby boomers are spending less time in the woods and more time in comfortable resorts. So the Williamses are diversifying their offerings, and emphasizing the different kinds of things visitors can do.

In addition to outfitting for canoe trips, now they offer kayaking in Lake Superior, and gear for treks on the Superior Hiking Trail. They offer flyfishing clinics, and their latest idea is day trips with a llama to carry your backpack.

Cathi Williams says a lot depends on weather. The early fishing opener and a warm spring have helped.

"We had eight months of really crappy weather," says Cathi Williams. "All of a sudden we went from winter to summer in one fell swoop, and that helped a lot. I think people are thinking they've got to get back up North."

Cathi and David Williams say all they need is some decent weather, for a great summer season. Of course, stable gas prices and a more settled international situation wouldn't hurt.

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