Summer Tourism Booming in Abilene

Abilene has been a popular place to visit this summer.  According to the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau, Abilene tourism partners experience increased visitation in the Best Small Town to Visit.

The Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene’s largest tourism attraction, reports an attendance of nearly 75,000 people in 2023, with a quarter of the year remaining. Visitation reflects that the Museum is still closed on Mondays and the annual Symphony at Sunset Annual D-Day Commemoration Concert was canceled due to excessive rain. In comparison, the Museum reported a yearly visitation of less than 45,000 in 2022.

“This is wonderful progress,” said Julie Roller Weeks, Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau director. “Their success is felt throughout the community. We fully expect visitation to surpass 100,000 for the first time since the Museum renovation closure and COVID-19 pandemic.”

Terry Tietjens, Historic Seelye Mansion, also reports a busy summer travel season. “We see anywhere from 25-50 visitors a day,” he said. “June and July where our best months yet.”

The Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad’s summer season was also strong. Ridership from May to August totaled nearly 5,000. According to Ross Boelling, Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad general manager, June and July ridership was higher than in 2022.

“We’ve had riders from 40 states and 34% of Kansas zip codes this season,” Boelling said. “Our social media campaigns by our new partners have been a boon to interest, attraction and ridership.  We expect our Peanuts Great Pumpkin event and our expanded Christmas Train offerings should put our ridership somewhere north of 10,000.”

The Great Pumpkin Patch Express is a Charlie Brown-themed train. The experience will include a reading of the Charles M. Schulz classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Tickets for this special train are available online at Riders are encouraged to purchase tickets early as space is limited.

Lisa Kijowski, Old Abilene Town volunteer, said their organization also benefits from the partnership with the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad.

Great Plains Theatre also reported nearly 3,000 guests, with two main stage shows – including its much-anticipated holiday show Miracle on 34th Street remaining.

Abilene’s Cowboy Art Trail also continues to garner visitation. Online Google requests for directions to the World’s Largest Belt Buckle alone totaled more than 800 from March-August. As one traveler from Illinois recently shared online about passing by and stopping, “Why not”? Other visitors traveling from Texas, New York, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona, Ohio and other Kansas communities also shared online photos and praise.

In correlation, Abilene’s Holiday Inn Express reports a solid summer travel season.

“June was our best June ever,” said Chad Ruffener, Holiday Inn Express general manager.  “We’re looking forward to our new hotel opening in the coming months to better serve our visitors.”

Tietjens concurs. “In 2025, we will host the Seeley Genealogical Society Reunion and we’re looking forward to our guests staying in the new hotel.”

The CVB is also looking forward to the new four-story Holiday Inn Express and the rebranding of the existing property.

“The new hotel will help keep more visitors in our community and generate additional Transient Guest Tax revenue,” Roller Weeks said. “As previously mentioned, Transient Guest Tax (TGT) collections in Abilene have fallen behind the 2022 figures, amounting to a current total of only $111,000.”

The Abilene CVB is funded through Transient Guest Tax collections, and its goal is to generate economic growth through tourism. To achieve this goal, the CVB markets Abilene to attract visitors and helps visitors and groups plan their trips.

“A common misconception is we are a Chamber of Commerce, Downtown or Economic Development Organization or other membership-driven organization,” she said. “As a city department, our job is to market and attract people to Abilene, so they can visit, spend money and spend the night in our community.”

This CVB works to achieve this goal with billboards, print and online advertising, media partnerships, travel writers and influencers, visitor guides, websites, state and regional coalitions, and other marketing channels.

As a result of its efforts, in 2023, Abilene was named Best Social Media Campaign (Destination) by the Midwest Travel Network, Best Small Town to Visit in the U.S. by TravelAwaits, #2 Best Historic Small Town by USA TODAY, Top 10 True Western Town of the Year by True West Magazine, and the World’s Largest Belt Buckle was named Best Roadside Attraction in the U.S. by TravelAwaits.

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Photo: Sunflower State Tours, Joe Hirsch owner/operator, hosted two groups at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum this week.