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A breakout summer: Wisconsin's tourism industry expects a big year from leisure travelers
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A breakout summer: Wisconsin's tourism industry expects a big year from leisure travelers

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Captain Keith Nordahl, of Baileys Harbor, conducts a sunset cruise Friday evening on Sister Bay. Wisconsin tourism officials expect a busy season after the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the industry last year.

As the 2021 summer travel season kicks off, there is hope, optimism and even predictions of a big rebound for the tourism industry, clobbered by the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

“I think this summer is currently poised to be record breaking,” said David Eades, executive director of the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Bureau. “I think people are ready to get out. After a long year of isolation they’re wanting to travel, wanting to get out in nature and we’re seeing a huge uptick in business this year.”

Reservations at lodges, hotels, motels and Airbnb properties around the state are surging to pre-pandemic levels, campgrounds are filling up and restaurants and bars are again welcoming customers indoors. Musicians are returning to stages, AirVenture in Oshkosh will happen along with Loon Day in Mercer and, in August, the 170th Wisconsin State Fair, with acts like Hank Williams Jr., the Beach Boys and Billy Idol.

Direct tourism spending in Wisconsin was down 28.3% in 2020 to $9.8 billion, a loss of $3.8 billion. None of the state’s 72 counties saw an increase in visitor spending last year. But state tourism officials are touting Wisconsin’s summertime as the “best time.” Inspirations on its website include hikes with a view, ocean-like beaches, “pizza farms,” waterfalls, award-winning public golf courses and eateries that include Tom’s Burned Down Cafe on Madeline Island and Driftless Cafe in downtown Viroqua.

Experts say a full recovery for the state’s tourism industry may not occur until 2023 or 2024, when conventions and business travel return. But leisure travelers toting fishing rods, beach blankets, cameras, bikes and credit cards are providing the fuel for the early rally in tourism spending.

“Travelers are turning to Wisconsin to discover the unexpected while reconnecting with friends and family and getting revenge on a year’s worth of missed vacations,” Anne Sayers, state tourism’s acting secretary said in a statement. This year, she said, “is the return of the great American road trip, and while many travelers (are) still seeking to spread out, others are focusing their itineraries on reconnecting with Wisconsin’s urban communities.”

In Madison, the Dane County Farmer’s will return to the city’s Downtown on June 19, the same day as the reboot of Paddle & Portage. The Union Terrace fully reopened on May 10, the CrossFit Games will return in late July, Ironman Wisconsin in September and the World Dairy Expo in October. UW-Madison officials are planning for Badgers football fans to return to Camp Randall Stadium this fall, while Art Fair on the Square is set for Sept. 25-26.

In 2020, tourism spending in Dane County plunged by $618 million, a 42.5% decrease compared to 2019, the deepest cut in the state. About a third of those losses happened in Madison’s Downtown. But with more events returning and vaccinations climbing, visitor spending is expected to follow.

“Most recently we are seeing the best information, which is that 86% of Americans plan to travel in the next six months,” said Ellie Westman Chin, president and CEO of Destination Madison.


Cars line the streets of Sister Bay, on Friday as the Memorial Day weekend got underway.

Westman Chin’s organization is implementing a year-long marketing and storytelling program to draw people to the region. The goal is to hit 1.5 million page views on its website and bring in at least 15 travel writers to help spread the word. Destination Madison’s recovery plan also includes aggressive pitches to meeting, event and sports planners; promoting Downtown; developing a roadmap for diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion inside and outside the organization and creating a task force to address workforce shortages in the hospitality industry.

That need for employees is being felt around the state.

At Eagle Waters Resort in Eagle River, bookings for the year for its 64 units are up 45% over 2020 and up 25% over 2019. Located on the eastern shoreline of Eagle Lake, the resort is a former logging camp but now hosts guests from around the country who come to relax, fish and boat on the 28 lakes that make up the world’s largest chain of freshwater lakes. The area also will host this year its Up North Beerfest June 11-12; Paul Bunyan Fest on Aug. 18 and, two days later, the 35th Annual National Championship Musky Open that’s expected to draw more than 1,300 anglers.

Wisconsin Dells

Thrills await again this summer as places like Noah's Ark Water Park in Wisconsin Dells, where Matt Hehl showed off Raja, one of the park's newest slides in 2018. 

“I truly think we’re going to be very, very busy,” said Lauren Koranda, who has owned the resort for the past 21 years. “We actually did fairly well last year in the lodging area and we felt like last year that this year was going to be even better as progress was made on the pandemic. But we’re going to have some major challenges. We don’t have enough workers.”

Koranda said she is short about 10 employees and is asking her guests to have patience with her staff, particularly at the lodge’s restaurant. But she also needs maintenance workers, housekeeping staff and help in the lodge’s office.

In Lake Geneva, a marketing plan with posters and social media messages is underway to alert visitors about staff shortages and to urge customers to stay calm and be understanding when waiting for a table or food at one of the area’s many restaurants.

“We have a lot of properties offering very big incentives at all levels. You’re going to be able to make some very good money,” said Stephanie Klett, president and CEO of Visit Lake Geneva. “This summer, what we have on the (reservation) books is crazy, and I mean that in the best way. People have been cooped up for too long and they are coming. And we can’t wait.”

For Memorial Day weekend, AAA Travel was expecting more than 37 million people to travel 50 miles or more from home, an increase of 60% from last year when only 23 million traveled, the lowest on record since AAA began recording in 2000. The expected strong increase in demand from last year’s holiday, which fell during the early phase of the pandemic, still represents 13% fewer travelers than in 2019 but is a positive sign.

Destinations Elroy Sparta-02252020135953 (copy)

A pair of cyclists walk their bicycles through one of the three tunnels along the Elroy-Sparta State Trail.

“As more people get the COVID-19 vaccine and consumer confidence grows, Americans are demonstrating a strong desire to travel this Memorial Day,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president for AAA Travel. “This pent-up demand will result in a significant increase in Memorial Day travel, which is a strong indicator for summer.”

In Wisconsin, some will head this summer to the waterfalls of Marinette County, bike through the tunnels of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail and camp at Kohler-Andrea State Park south of Sheboygan. There will be visits to the Bronze Fonz in downtown Milwaukee, the world’s largest penny in Woodruff and Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips. Paddlers will ply the waters of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior, search for an island campsite on the Willow Flowage and navigate around the sandbars of the Lower Wisconsin River from Prairie du Sac to Prairie du Chien.

In Door County, Rock Island State Park has reopened after being off limits for all of 2020, there have been massive improvements at Peninsula State Park, the cherry trees have started to bloom and the goats have returned to the roof of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik in Sister Bay. Earlier this month in Sturgeon Bay, a 10-story, $7.2 million tower filled with exhibits at the Door County Maritime Museum opened after years of planning and construction.

The peninsula, known for its lighthouses, beaches, sailing, wineries and fish boils, had a record year of tourism spending in 2019 and reservations for 2021 are on pace to exceed those numbers.

“It looks pretty darn good for this summer,” said Jack Moneypenny, president and CEO of Destination Door County. “I’m just thinking it’s going to be a non-stop summer in Door County.”


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