Leaders say tourism boost in Indiana could come from the outdoors

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INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Zoo plans to welcome more than 1 million people this year.

One of the top drivers for local tourism, Judy Palermo of the Indy Zoo says its 64 acres of scenic views, and animals, were a major draw throughout its reopening during the pandemic and now.

“So many people have been stuck inside and to be able to get to come to the zoo and [now want to] look at the beautiful plants, flowers and animals, connect with an animal, maybe an elephant,” Palermo said. “You’ll see someone giving an elephant a bath, or you can go up and touch an elephant here. That’s really connecting with nature.”

Reconnecting with nature seems to be the focus behind efforts to boost Indiana tourism. Though 2020 numbers aren’t out yet, Elaine Bedel with the Indiana Destination Development Corporation says last year’s trends showed more people getting outside.

“Something that we’re planning on, that actually happened last year, was that everybody wanted to get outside because it was the only place you could really go,” said Bedel. “So our state parks were really just, I don’t want to say overrun, but they were well used.”

Bedel says numbers showed a 21% increase in utilizing state parks and properties last year.

Earlier this year, IDDC launched the State Nature Passport.

In collaboration with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the virtual passport allows visitors to check-in by phone at more than 50 scenic locations for prizes.

So far, Bedel says 11,000 people have already started using the feature.

“It was really something that people grabbed on to right away,” she said, “So we’re really pleased with the acceptance rate by the public and looking to push that out even more with another relaunch as we head into the summer months.”

Bedel says research also shows more people are preferring to drive to their destinations. That’s why IDDC launched its Road Trips feature, which includes more than 20 different road trip suggestions through all parts of Indiana.

“It’s really great because once you get there and kind of choose your own trip, you can actually download an itinerary, so you’ve got it ready to go on your phone or printed off on paper,” said Bedel, “It’s an interactive map so you can really get a lot of use and plan your own trip for be it one day, two days, a long weekend or even a whole week.”

At the zoo, Palermo says visitors respond well to the convenience of attractions and sites being close by, or a short drive away.

As part of their outreach, the zoo partners with surrounding businesses, like the Children’s Museum. Together, they offer a Family Fun Pack, which includes tickets to both facilities and a hotel for one price.

“You can go to a restaurant downtown, or a convention, or have your family walk around White River State Park and we’re right there,” Palermo said, “You don’t have to drive an hour or half hour to get to the zoo, or if you’re spending some time downtown, or visiting family from out of town, that happens a lot.”

The zoo is also preparing for new attractions to bring in more visitors. Its “Crocodiles and Alligators: The Fight to Survive” exhibit opens Memorial Day weekend and is expected to draw in a crowd for its up close experience with the animals.

The Outdoor Concert Series at White River State Park also kicks off for the season on June 17th.

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