Rather than traveling around the world during the warm summer months, some Nebraskans prefer to fill a different type of passport—the Nebraska Passport.
The Nebraska Passport Program, now in its 10th year, challenges participants to visit 70 destinations spread across Nebraska each summer.
“It’s a fun, interactive program meant to get people to discover Nebraska’s hidden gems,” says Erin Wirth, passport program coordinator for the Nebraska Tourism Commission.
“Nebraska has so many hidden gems that even native Nebraskans don’t know about,” she says. “That’s really what the purpose is, to make people aware of all the cool things Nebraska has to offer and to provide a fun way to go visit them all.”
Beginning May 1, participants have until Sept. 30 to collect as many stamps as they can by visiting each destination. The sites span from Omaha to Scottsbluff and highlight historical sites, restaurants, museums, outdoor and recreational areas, local shopping, and more.
“Spreading it across the state is actually a key factor in its popularity,” Wirth says. “People like to drive around the state and see places they’ve never seen before.”
The Nebraska Tourism Commission designed the program to benefit the state’s economy, too. According to an economic impact study of the 2017 program, the initiative generated about $6 billion in traveler spending and $500,000 in local and state tax revenue.
It is completely free to participate in the program and collect stamps. Participants, however, may want to pay admission, buy a meal, or do some shopping in order to fully experience each site.
The majority of the destinations change each year, with only a few exceptions. The finalized list is released in March so participants have time to plan their trips.
All Nebraska businesses are welcome to apply to be featured as a stop on the Nebraska Passport.
“We look for customer service,” Wirth says. “It’s not hard to find in Nebraska because everyone has great customer service, but we want to make sure that our participants feel welcome at each destination.”
Wirth selects the destinations each year by reading the applications and visiting each business that applied in January and February to narrow down the list. For the 2019 program, they received 252 applications for the 70 passport spots.
“Then we look for destinations that have something special to offer, something unique,” Wirth says.
The stops are divided into 10 different categories, with seven stops in each category.
“Really the best part of participating in our program [according to participants’ feedback] is that they get to meet all the faces behind Nebraska businesses and have a ball spending time with their family and friends while hopping from stop to stop,” Wirth says.
“Quirky Nebraska” is one category for the 2019 season and features unusual and unique locations across the state that Wirth says will make people smile. There is also a “Happy Hour” category featuring a selection of breweries and wineries.
“I have been to each of the stops for this year and I think they’re great,” Wirth says. “People will have a really good time.”
This year’s passport program also marks a special milestone—the 10-year anniversary of the program.
In celebration, the 2019 passport will feature fan-favorite destinations and favorite prizes from seasons past. Prizes are awarded after a person reaches a certain number of stops. People who complete all 70 passport stops will receive apparel that brands them a “passport champion,” which Wirth says was a very popular prize in the past.
Over its 10-year lifespan, the Nebraska Passport Program has seen many changes, but none bigger than the expanding role of technology and the growth of the passport program.
A couple of years ago, an app was created to make the travel experience even more convenient. This year, the app will include GPS directions to every stop, stamp collection, and trivia questions about the destinations and Nebraska.
“[The passport program has] grown so much and it’s been so successful; people just get hooked doing it,” Wirth says.
In 2018, more than 50,000 passport books were distributed and 7,000 people collected prizes. A total of 749 people from seven different states collected stamps from all 70 stops, earning themselves the title of passport champion.
“It’s become such a popular program that the best promotion is by word of mouth. People that have participated before get their family and friends involved,” Wirth says. “If you do the passport once, you just want to keep doing it over and over again.”
To learn more about the Nebraska Passport Program, visit nebraskapassport.com. Participants can order a booklet by mail or download the Nebraska Passport app for free from any app store.
This article was printed in the May edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.