BRANSON, Mo. - This is the time of year when we start thinking about vacations and finding someplace new and exciting to go.
For the past few years, the New York Times puts together a list of 52 places to visit for that year. On the exclusive list for 2018 is a place only four hours from St. Louis. And for people in Branson, who have seen their small town grow into a world-class destination, this latest ranking is validation for a lot of their hard work.
Branson Mayor Karen Best has seen a lot of growth over the past few years.
"For a long time, we were a well-kept secret," she said. "And then all these articles kept coming out about how this is the place to be and go… and I think it's getting so much attention because we are kind of reinventing ourselves."
People in the Midwest have known about Branson's country charm for decades. But a transformation in the Ozark Hills has upped the exposure and the expectations. One of the top tourist destinations in Branson is, and has been for decades, Silver Dollar City. Park General Manager Brad Thomas said no matter what the economy seems to bring, the little town in the hills continually sees millions of people visit every year.
"Branson constantly changes," Thomas said. "Back in the 90s, we were building all kinds of theaters and music shows. And those music shows are still around today. But in addition to all of those great things that Branson has been in the past, there are even more reasons to visit."
One recent change is people moving to the area full time, not just for the tourism season. The population is still only about 12,000 permanent residents but that has tripled since 1990.
"People that come here and they feel like they're on vacation every day. And they want to live here," Best said.
In order to keep the growth coming, city leaders knew they had to upgrade things about this city to attract a new generation of travelers, including new malls, new resorts and hotels, new golf courses, and new attractions. Local commercial real estate agent Chris Vinton says the city could grow even faster but is happy that it isn't.
"Just when they say the boom came and that's it, it continues," he said. "Year after year there is always something new and exciting that exceeds all expectations."
Alongside the mom and pop hotels and campgrounds are new, upscale hotels being developed. Local analysts say this type of lodging would not be built unless developers, and the money behind the developers, knows that growth is still to come.
The golf course developments are also getting national attention with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Pete Crenshaw, and Tiger Woods putting their names on projects. Part of the reason you have those names coming to town is due to local business legend, Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops.
"When you have someone who is on the Forbes List, equal to the President of the United States, people take notice," Mayor Best said.
Industry experts in southwest Missouri believe he is building the courses to one day attract bigger PGA Tour events to the Ozarks, which will fuel even more growth.
You also have award-winning additions at Silver Dollar City, Big Cedar Lodge, Dogwood Canyon, and Branson Landing so you can see why big money is pouring into the area.
"One specific thing is probably not doing it," Vinton said. "But it's a collection of a lot of little things collectively that really make Branson look a lot more attractive."
Mayor Best said it is an honor to lead the city at a time when everything seems to be going right.
"We've always known what a gem we have here," she said. "But when people from around the country and the world see what we have, it makes us very proud."
So if you are planning to check out some of the 52 Places to Visit in 2018, you might as well start with the one that's only a few hours away.
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