Outdoor Recreation Drives Michigan Tourism Recovery

LANSING (Capital News Service) — Local tourism officials say outdoor recreation is bringing Michigan tourism back, after two summers plagued by pandemic fears. 

And they hope that changes in how people travel will mean even better days are ahead.   

This is welcome news to the tourism industry, which employed over 230,000 people before the pandemic, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. 

In 2019, almost every region in the state had its best year for tourism spending, according to the council. In the summer of 2020, however, spending was halved in some peak vacation months.

Some indications show that the decline is over and Michigan tourism is bouncing back, especially for beach communities.

The Mackinac Bridge Authority reports traffic between the Upper and Lower peninsulas returned to normal by August of last year. Even better: April through July of this year has had the highest traffic numbers on record.

Linda Hart, the executive director of the Holland Area Visitors Bureau, said she thinks the pandemic has exposed beach communities like hers to a new audience.

“We saw a lot of first-time visitors to Holland,” Hart said. “While Holland has normally been an annual family destination, this year and last, we saw many more people who were looking for bike trails, beaches and smaller communities.”

These amenities spared Holland the worst of the effects of the pandemic last summer, with hotel occupancy falling only 15% from its normal rate, according to the visitors bureau. While rates have returned to comparable pre-pandemic levels this summer, recent hotel expansions mean that the actual numbers of visitors this year could be even higher than peaks in the past, according to the visitors bureau.   

Michigan saw reductions in vacation spending fall by 35% by the end of the summer of 2020, but that’s better than the 48% drop nationwide, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

“In 2020 we started to see a recovery all around the state, but it’s very unbalanced,”  said David Lorenz, the vice president of Travel Michigan, the organization that developed and manages the Pure Michigan brand. “You look at cities compared to rural areas and it’s a tale of two cities, excuse the pun. And this is because our rural areas, especially along the coast, saw a huge increase in 2020.”

Lorenz said that people who wanted to travel in 2020 didn’t want to go long distances and instead chose to travel close to home. That way they could be outdoors and comply with social distancing requirements that caution against large gatherings indoors and encourage physical separation between groups when outside.

“Those people who were traveling were heading literally up north,” Lorenz said. “Now, that’s normally a term we use as a sentiment of wanting to travel and get outside, but in this case, ‘Up North’ meant Up North. They were heading to northern Michigan and to waterfront communities.”

Mike Kent, the public relations manager for Traverse City Tourism, sees a lot of people traveling to Northwest Michigan for outdoor recreation, and local businesses are seeing the same effects. Hotel occupancy in Traverse City was four times higher this April than last year and is steadily returning to pre-pandemic levels.

“You can see it in the numbers that we are getting back to where we were in 2019 which was a very robust year,” Kent said. “People are taking advantage of what we have to offer, which is wide open spaces”. 

Similar results are being seen in Petoskey, where “people see it as a safe place to be,” according to Diane Dakins, the assistant director of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau.

“We have a lot of outdoor recreation and places to spread out to have a great time without people being right next to each other,” Dakins said. 

Dakins said she thinks that the elevated numbers are temporary because of the number of family gatherings like weddings and reunions that were canceled last year, attributing the spike this year to pent-up demand. However, other officials say this represents a larger trend that could bring people back to these towns year after year.

“We saw a lot more local traffic last year from the state of Michigan and places like Chicago,” Hart said, referring to Holland. “Normally we see more traffic from the Midwest, but this year we saw a return of both (local and out-of-state travelers).”

Kent also thinks events like the Ironman race held in Frankfort earlier this month are the types of things that will continually bring people back to Michigan. 

“People are literally coming from all over the country, and most of them have never heard of Frankfort,” Kent said. “Our goal is to make them fall in love with the area, and what’s not to fall in love with?”

Nicholas Simon is a multimedia reporter from South Haven, Michigan. His areas of interest include international relations, commercial spaceflight, ecology, and globalization. He has covered events for both print and broadcast outlets ranging from protests to presidential debates and currently covers the Grand Ledge community for the Spartan Newsroom.