Think about the term “industry,” and images of smokestacks and factories come to mind. However, in the Kearney area we have a variety of industries. Among them are agriculture, education, health care and tourism. Think about any one of those industries, and you realize they fill an important role in our community, providing employment that supports the other various businesses that make our city and region thrive.

Among Kearney’s major employers are businesses with smokestacks, feedyards and ethanol plants, classrooms and operating rooms.

We also have an industry that has lots of hotels, motels and restaurants. And, like other communities across the state, we are steadily becoming more aware of the tremendous benefits and economic potential this relatively new industry possesses.

Today marks the close of Tourism Week in Nebraska, a time to think about tourism’s contributions to Nebraska’s economy and what’s happening right here in Kearney and Buffalo County.

We are Nebraska’s fourth busiest tourism center, measured by annual lodging tax collections. Ahead of Kearney/Buffalo County are Omaha/Dodge County, Lincoln/Lancaster County and Sarpy County, home of La Vista, Papillion, Bellevue, Offutt Air Force Base and Gretna.

Each of the top three tourism centers has advantages that allow them to capitalize on tourism.

Kearney and Buffalo County’s advantages are our central location, mix of events, interesting attractions, facilities and aggressive leadership. Our hospitality businesses and attractions employ an estimated 1,660 people and account for $113 million in spending.

To understand how tourism contributes to our local economy, think what our community might be like without tourism. This spring we witnessed the devastating effects of flooding and washed out roads. One of those roads, Elm Island, leads to the National Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, which was anticipating thousands of visitors during the sandhill crane migration. With no road to carry tourists to the sanctuary and its viewing blinds, Rowe lost an estimated $250,000 in revenue. That doesn’t count hotel reservation cancellations and other related losses.

Imagine our economy if other attractions suddenly vanished — no destination stores, no convention centers, no special events. The financial damage would be unthinkable.

As tourism emerges as an increasingly impactful industry in Nebraska, we in Kearney/Buffalo County should appreciate the value and importance of tourism dollars. They keep our community’s 1,800 motel and hotels rooms occupied, encourage millions of dollars in investment, and give jobs to people who need them. Tourism dollars also tell us we’ve only begun to cultivate the potential of this increasingly vital industry.