Tourism Incentives Get Tri-State Tryout

Maryland hopes to reel in visitors with a million-dollar fish. Iowa and South Dakota hope free gas vouchers will attract more tourists. It's all part of the annual summer scramble to pump travel dollars into state economies.

Bragging rights for the grandest tourism incentive prize probably accrue to Maryland. If you test your angling skills in the Free State and catch the right fish, you could collect a seven-figure paycheck. With Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and former Baltimore Orioles baseball star Boog Powell headlining a June 2 opening ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland kicked off its second annual $1,000,000 Fishing Challenge .

Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which is running the summer-long event, has tagged more than 1,500 fish in the state's streams, rivers and lakes, as well as the Chesapeake Bay. Licensed anglers who catch any of the tagged fish are automatically entered into a pool of contestants, with five chosen as winners at a Sept. 16 drawing, also in Annapolis.

Four winners will take home prizes that include two pickup trucks and two motorboats with trailers. The fifth will earn a 1-in-65 chance to win $1 million in a raffle. Corporate sponsors, including Boater's World, Toyota of Maryland and Bass Pro Shops, provide all prizes and money.

State officials say the competition is an economic quid pro quo.

"If you go fishing, chances are, you're going to stop at a convenience store and buy some sodas or ice, get some gas, buy some bait or a fishing rod," said DNR spokesman Marty Gary. "We know there's a huge impact by folks going fishing."

Landlocked Iowa and South Dakota have attracted tourists with gas vouchers instead of fish.

Iowa, together with the convenience-store chain Kum & Go, gave away 25 gas vouchers worth $50 each on July 13 after a two-month promotion by the state's Tourism Office. More than 5,300 people registered to win one of the cards, the Iowa Department of Economic Development reported.

South Dakota's Office of Tourism has offered visitors $20 fuel vouchers that serve a dual purpose - to boost tourism and the state's ethanol industry. South Dakota ranks among the top producers of ethanol in the country.

The fuel vouchers can be used at hundreds of ethanol retailers across the state and are paid for by two industry advocacy groups, the American Coalition for Ethanol and the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council .

The vouchers are only available to residents of a select 10 states: Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin. A majority of South Dakota's tourists come from those states, said Billie Jo Waara, director of the Office of Tourism.

The voucher program, called Twenty Bucks for the Road , has proven immensely popular, - too popular, in fact, Waara said. The state suspended the giveaways after distributing more than 35,000 vouchers. Tourism officials originally expected to hand out 3,500.

Maryland's fishing competition has raised the stakes since its inception last year. This year's Fishing Challenge will revive a Maryland tradition that could pay anglers an instant $25,000 - without the raffle necessary to claim the $1 million grand prize.

Each week during the 13-week contest, which ends on Labor Day, contest organizers are releasing five striped bass - also known as rockfish, the official state fish - into the Chesapeake Bay or one of its tributaries. One of the five rockfish, which carry special, neon-green tags, comes with a guaranteed $25,000 prize if caught within a week.

Organizers have dubbed the weekly winning fish "Diamond Jim," after a state competition in the 1950s that established the $25,000 prize for a tagged Maryland rockfish, DNR spokesman Gary said. Back then, the National Brewing Co. of Baltimore put up the prize money.

No one has reeled in "Diamond Jim" so far this year, though two people have caught rockfish with the neon-green tags just days past the deadline, Gary said. Anglers have caught more than 120 total tagged fish since the Fishing Challenge began, he said, noting that this year's event is longer and more lucrative for anglers than last year's.

"There's never been a contest of this magnitude sponsored by the state of Maryland in its history," he said.

Not all states are convinced that tourist-incentives programs pay in the long run.

Kansas, which for the past two summers has organized a promotion called the Mega Gigantic Getaway Giveaway , discontinued it this year. The giveaway targeted Kansas visitors who traveled more than 50 miles, providing winners with a host of prizes including a big-screen TV, a "Big Family Weekend in Kansas City" and an "I-35 Road Trip."

Although the giveaway was well-received and increased awareness about Kansas, "We didn't think the prizes persuaded people to travel," said Richard Smalley, a spokesman with the state tourism office.