US travel bans expected to hurt Sturgis rally attendance

Aviation slump, travel restrictions early indicators of diminished motorcycle meet-up
Published: Jul. 31, 2020 at 3:42 PM CDT
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STURGIS, S.D. (KOTA) - Sturgis is preparing for an influx of visitors, but between the global travel restrictions and coronavirus concerns, there’s a question of how many people may actually attend their annual motorcycle rally this year.

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is known as the “granddaddy of ‘em all” in biking circles around the world, averaging 450,000 visitors to the motorcycle Mecca on a normal year. With that said, 2020 is not a normal year.

Patrick Dame, executive director of the Rapid City Regional Airport, related the COVID year from an aviation standpoint: “things happen, and, sometimes, you do have a bad, bad year.”

Sturgis city planners had high hopes for the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. They desired to beat the 490,000 attendance from 2019.

That is, until COVID happened. Dame now thinks they’ll be lucky to beat 300,000, and a couple of early indicators lend themselves to this figure.

For one, air travel is at its lowest point since the Sept. 11 attacks brought on an airfare scare throughout the world: “This has been worse than 9/11 in terms of the impact on the industry,” Dame says. “We’re definitely seeing ... an improvement in our passenger loads, but we’re still not getting near the number of passengers that we would be seeing otherwise this time of year.”

Another concern: no travel advisories. Christina Steele, public information officer for the city of Sturgis, says that international travel bans to the U.S. will also slash the number of foreign visitors attending the motorcycle meet-up.

“Especially those from places like Mexico ... Canada, we always have a lot of foreign travelers that come for the rally,” Steele says. “With all the COVID restrictions ... I know, this year, those numbers will be down.”

It’s not all doom and gloom for the biker numbers, however. The airport has reserved parking for 12 semi-trailers carrying dozens of bikes each - more than most years, but not as many as the 75th’s 14 trailers.

Planners are also focused on attracting an audience of people who feel stuck-at-home and in places with stay-at-home orders due to coronavirus surges.

“We do also anticipate there’s a lot of pent-up travel demand for people ... so we’re optimistic looking at that. We just gotta get through this piece, and it’s a determination of how long this piece will last,” Dame finished.

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