With the frigid temperatures and heavy snow we’re experiencing, it’s hard to believe that spring is just around the corner. But before long, we’ll be seeing green grass in our lawns again, farmers will be planting crops and tourists from across the world will flock to South Dakota to experience our many attractions. Tourism is a vital part of our economy — No. 2 only to agriculture. Last year alone, tourism supported more than 54,000 jobs and generated nearly $300 million in tax revenue.
When I was working as governor, boosting tourism in South Dakota was one of our top priorities. I’m pleased that it has continued to flourish over the years. Those of us who live here know that South Dakota is beautiful, diverse and full of history and culture — we’re the “land of infinite variety.” We welcome travelers to our state so they can get a taste of what we get to experience every day. In addition to our countless outdoor activities, historic landmarks and national and state parks, the kindness and generosity of the people of South Dakota are what keep visitors coming back year after year.
The men and women who make up South Dakota’s tourism industry work hard throughout the year to make our communities fun, inviting places to spend a vacation. Because we’re a small population state with a low unemployment rate, hiring and keeping employees can be difficult for businesses that operate on a seasonal basis. I recently held a roundtable meeting in Rapid City with South Dakota Department of Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen and tourism industry stakeholders to discuss how we can continue to increase tourism in our state. One of the main issues I heard time and time again was the need for more H-2B visas for temporary, seasonal workers.
The H-2B visa program allows employers to hire foreign workers for short-term jobs for specific periods of time before the workers must return to their home country. Because of low unemployment rates, the program is in high demand. However, the cap on visas hasn’t been adjusted to accommodate the demand, and employers are going without workers during their busiest seasons.
I recently sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) urging the administration to use the authority they have been granted by Congress to increase the statutory cap of H-2B visas available for Fiscal Year 2019. From April 1, 2019, through the end of the fiscal year, the demand for H-2B visas exceeds 95,000 workers. That is nearly three times the number of available H-2B visas available for that time period.
If the cap for H-2B visas isn’t increased soon, there will be serious consequences for seasonal businesses and our state’s economy. The busy tourism and construction seasons are starting up in South Dakota, and these industries need workers. I look forward to hearing back from DHS soon because employers in our state need to be able to plan for their busiest seasons.