LINCOLN — Nebraskans sure must like to eat.

For the second year in a row, an ice cream shop in Lincoln ranked as the most visited place among the 70 eateries and attractions listed in the State Tourism Commission’s Passport program for 2018.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Dairy Store, which is staffed by UNL students, edged out two other Lincoln food stops, the Rabbit Hole Bakery and Piezano’s pizzeria, for the top spot in the Passport program, which challenges travelers to visit all 70 stops in the program and attain the title of “Passport Champion.”

The program, in its ninth year, saw a 50 percent increase in participants and established a new record for those who visited all 70 stops — 749. The participants came from 46 states, though most are from Nebraska. Champions hitting every stop included people from Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Oregon.

“This program has grown year after year, achieving the goal of getting Nebraskans to explore the state they call home,” said John Ricks, executive director of the Nebraska Tourism Commission.

Eating spots, according to commission spokeswoman Erin Lenz, are popular with participants in the Passport program.

“All of the restaurants on that list are pretty much in Lincoln, Omaha, Grand Island and Fremont ... highly populated areas. So it’s just easier to visit them,” Lenz said. “Plus, everyone likes to eat.”

The Passport program, she said, is designed to highlight the “hidden gems” across the state. So tourism powerhouses, like Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, aren’t usually included. And stops that are listed one year usually are not listed the next.

Visitors get a stamp when they visit one of the Passport stops and are under no obligation to buy anything or pay admission. But many do, Lenz said. An estimated $6 million in travel spending and $469,500 in state and local tax revenue is generated, according to the agency. Unlike the recently announced tourism media campaign with the tagline, “Nebraska: Honestly, it’s not for everyone,” the Passport program targets Nebraskans rather than out-of-state travelers.

One participant called it “an awesome adventure” and a great way to discover new attractions.

“The Nebraska Passport gave me a renewed sense of state pride,” said Melanie Wortsell of Norfolk. “The people we met along the way were so friendly and genuine. We saw places that we’d never heard of before. The scenery in western Nebraska was incredible.”

John Valencia, a UNL senior from Lincoln who works at the Dairy Store, said the Passport program does generate traffic for the ice cream outlet. It was founded in 1917 and features hand-made ice cream, including some from recipes developed decades ago.

“There’s a lot of people who come in and tell their stories of when they attended college 30-40 years ago,” Valencia said.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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