Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Storm Tourism and the Economy of Kansas and the Great Plains

What do you see in the photo above? People on a lightly-travelled dirt road? Of course. A picturesque scene of clouds and a sea of deep green winter wheat? That, too.

Merchants in rural areas of the Great Plains think "customers!" Those in the photo were all storm chasers. The white vehicles are vans belonging to storm touring companies. From various conversations, I understand there were people from Japan who had come to the Plains to see storms last week. Foreign storm tourists are more common than you might think.

Kathleen and I did a combined Mother's Day drive and storm chase Sunday. Whenever I storm chase, I make it a point to spend money outside of Wichita. We stopped to fill up with gasoline at Casey's General Store in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. They have a huge parking lot and the far end was filled with storm chasers happily chatting and comparing notes. We saw license plates from as far away as Georgia. After paying at the pump, I went into the store to use the facilities and there were ten (actual count) people lined up waiting to pay for their purchases.

After the chase, we went to a McDonalds in Anthony, KS and ran into meteorologist Mark Bogner and his family. The parking lot was filled with chasers munching on sandwiches. All that I spoke with were having a good time.

In 2013, I asked one of the employees of a store in Coldwater, KS if storm chasers made a difference to their sales. The attendant told me, emphatically, the day before (a big storm day in Kansas with what was known as the Rozel tornado) was the biggest single day of sales in their history!

The Great Plains rural economy is poor right now. Both crop and oil/gas prices are way down. That is why the law enforcement whining about storm chasers so annoys me. Our tax dollars pay to promote tourism yet some in law enforcement want to discourage people who like to come here because we have the most spectacular sky of any place I've ever lived or visited.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the movie, Twister, which started the storm chasing craze. Come on, Kansas officials: Welcome storm chasers with open arms. Make them feel welcome and make it easy for them to visit (and spend their money!).

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