Nebraska Passport Program: Businesses want to see your (tourism) passport

Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock has been one of the more popular attractions as part of the Nebraska Passport Program.

Much like the summer movie season traditionally kicks off with a Marvel superheroes movie, Nebraska’s summer travel season unofficially starts when the Nebraska Passport gets stamped at your first visit. The program, created by the Nebraska state tourism commission, celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2019. Running from May 1 to Sept. 30, passport holders have 70 locations in 61 communities across the state.

With categories highlighting hidden gems like Scotia’s Happy Jack Chalk Mine and rural spots like The Hive and Lemondrop Boutique in Bloomfield, the passport program encourages people to get out and see more of the state than just their hometown. The program seeks to get out-of-state visitors to explore the state’s backroads.

Inside the Happy Jack Chalk Mine near Scotia.

One of the best tourism programs in the United States, the passport program shares Nebraska’s story with thousands of visitors from around the country, said Jenn Gjerde of the state’s tourism commission.

“It drives small businesses and the economic impact it has on these communities,” Gjerde said.

A lot of the communities featured in the passport program are often small towns, far off the beaten path of Interstate 80 or the other major highways in the state.

“If you don’t include them, you miss out on small businesses,” said Erin Lenz, the passport program’s coordinator. “Some of the best coffee houses in the state are in small towns.”

Businesses want to be part of the program

As the program annually grows, businesses of all shapes and sizes apply for a spot on the passport. While 70 locations were selected to be on this year’s passport, 250 applied, Gjerde said. Some are repeated from year-to-year, she said, with those most likely attractions – such as Carhenge in Alliance –  being ones that tourism officials know visitors will want to check out.

It’s common to run into people visiting locations to get their passports stamped. Last year, I spent an entire day getting our first 10 locations stamped in the passport. I ran into a duo who were doing the same thing. We laughed each time we saw one another. I believe I met them at three or four locations in the Omaha area. That day included stops in Greenwood, Ashland and Louisville. The program is popular among Nebraskans, as well as visitors. Nearly 749 completed passports were mailed to the tourism commission, Lenz said. That was up considerably from 10 years ago when a handful of people completed every stamp. People submit their passports for opportunities to win prizes.

Ashfall Fossil Beds
The Ashfall Fossil Bed near Royal ranks high on tourists’ lists.

Last year, more than 50,000 people visited Nebraska attractions as part of the passport program, with 418 Nebraska communities identified, as well as attracting people from 46 states. About 144,000 stamps were collected, averaging about 31 per passport issued. Last year, 71 stops highlighted the program.

We’re looking forward to adding more stamps to our passport than we completed last year (it was dismal to say the least. Our worst year). So, we may see you out and about at some of the great stops on this year’s passport.

Nebraska passports can be picked up at the participating businesses or by ordering online from the state tourism commission.