State of Tourism: Outdoor recreation, regional trips on the rise

Published: May. 23, 2020 at 11:19 AM CDT
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Memorial Day weekend is typically a popular time for travel as it marks the unofficial kickoff to summer, but this holiday season looks very different.

In 2019, Wisconsin’s $22.2 billion tourism industry welcomed over 113 million visitors to the Badger state.

According to the Department of Tourism, since the coronavirus outbreak began, the state has lost $1.7 billion dollars in travel spending.

“That’s a very large number and that is very real,” said Secretary-designee of Tourism Sara Meaney. “That is dollars not spent in our local businesses and that’s past revenue not coming into our state to stay in the services that we all rely on.”

State officials anticipate up to $200 million dollars of loss in travel spending each week.

“I would expect that number to be even larger because you know Memorial Day, Memorial Day weekend and the weeks following there’s a huge increase,” added Meaney.

Tourism also supports over 202,000 full and part-time jobs.

Rise in Regional Tourism

Tourism leaders are predicting more residents to choose regional travel this summer.

Destination Door County Director of Communications and Public Relations Jon Jarosh says many national trends show people that choose to vacation won’t go far.

“I do think we’ll get some people that instead of traveling further away from home may decide to stick a little closer to home,” Jarosh said.

In Sauk County, Downtown Baraboo Incorporated is gearing up to welcome neighbors from Dane or Rock counties.

“I think regional tourism is definitely where we are shifting our focus in the Baraboo area,” said Lacey Steffes, the Vice President of Downtown Baraboo Inc. and Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce Chair.

Steffes says with Mirror Lake, Devil’s Lake, and other natural resources nearby the area is naturally positioned to do social distancing.

“I definitely see Baraboo as a destination for those families that are like ‘Oh yeah, we should go to Baraboo’ but their summer is packed with all the fairs and all of the other commitments,” said Steffes. “This year without those commitments, I really think families are going to explore some areas that they haven’t gotten to explore before.”

Steffes adds that because of its proximity to the Wisconsin Dells area, Baraboo tends to benefit.

“Our businesses do count on our tourism dollars that comes from overflow from the Wisconsin Dells area,” she said. “It’s unsure what their summers will look like.”

Opting for Outdoor Recreation

Many Wisconsin residents are leaning into outdoor activities as many bigger events for this summer are canceled.

“People are anxious to just get outside and explore nature a little bit, in places other than their backyard,” said Jarosh.

The Department of Natural Resources says Memorial Day Weekend is always a busy time.

“We’re busy leading up to this and generally this is a very busy weekend,” said Chris Pedretti, the DNR Business Operations Sections Chief. “Unfortunately, this year, we’ve certainly had to adapt like everyone around the state.”

While the state parks are open for hiking, the campgrounds remained closed over the holiday weekend.

Pedretti says because bathrooms, showers, and other facilities are needed to operate campgrounds

“In years past on Memorial Day Weekend, we’ve run about 100 % capacity for camping throughout the property and with over 6,000 camp sites around the state, that’s a lot of camping that’s going on for the weekend,” said Pedretti.

Financially, the DNR is losing out on revenue made from camping on Memorial Day Weekend.

“Certainly, like anything that’s happened over the past few months here is impacting the parks as well,” said Pedretti. “We definitely have to think about that and consider that but safety comes first and then we’ll deal with the financial implications after that.”

Door County: Popular Tourist Destination

Summer tourism dependent areas like Door County rely on visitors to make their way up after Memorial Day weekend.

Destination Door County’s Jon Jarosh says it’s hard to anticipate who will travel to one of the state’s most popular tourist spots.

“There’s a lot of unknowns in that capacity,” he said. “We’re preparing and we’re going to be ready for visitors to come back as they normally might but we just don’t know.”

Door County is launching a Commitment to Cleanliness and Safety program giving businesses guidelines and steps to take for both customers and staff.

Polly Helm, the owner of Door County Nature Works in Egg Harbor, says she’s adapting her business to make customers feel safe.

“We’re taking this very seriously in Door County and I think the businesses are very cautiously opening,” said Helm.

She’s even gone so far as to offer private shopping times for those who are unsure about being around other people.

“I think we’re all doing what we know how to do to keep everyone safe,” Helm added. “We’re doing our best.”

Helm says she’s sanitizing her store and requiring her employees to wear masks. She’s also placed six feet markings on the floor to encourage social distancing.

Department of Tourism on Public Safety

The Department of Tourism is pushing a virtual campaign ‘Dream Now, Travel Later’ to get visitors to Wisconsin to begin planning a trip once again.

Secretary-designee Sara Meaney says she’s urging residents to follow the Department of Health Services, which is currently advising no travel outside of a regional destination or unless deemed an essential trip.

“The goal is to not see the spread of the virus and the goal is to hopefully not see it peak again later this year,” said Meaney. “We look to that time, later summer and early fall, as potential recoup time. We keep that in mind when we plan our strategy to promote tourism for the state of Wisconsin.”