They came for the CrossFit Games in Madison to wonder at the endurance and strength of some of the best athletes in the world.
Others took in a live band and munched on a mozzarella marinara at Summerfest in Milwaukee, paddled the Kickapoo River in Vernon County or spent a day in downtown Wausau in September at the inaugural International Ginseng Festival.
The combined efforts of day-trippers from Wisconsin and visitors from around the globe has helped the state to another solid year for tourism.
Direct tourism spending in 2017 across Wisconsin rose 3.17 percent over 2016, to $12.7 billion, according to numbers released Friday by the state Department of Tourism. Milwaukee County led all counties with nearly $2 billion in direct spending, a 3 percent increase, while Dane County was second in direct spending at $1.2 billion, an increase of 2.7 percent. Sauk County, home to many of the attractions in Wisconsin Dells and Devil’s Lake State Park, was third at $1.1 billion, a 3.6 percent increase over the previous year.
It marks the eighth straight year of gains for the state in one of its signature industries that touches all 72 counties.
“The travel and hospitality industry continues to be crucial to our state and is consistently a top performing sector of our economy,” Gov. Scott Walker said in a statement announcing the figures. “Investing in tourism promotion and marketing at the national, state, and local level is not only an effective way to attract visitors and grow the economy, it also enhances the image of Wisconsin as a great place to live and do business.”
Gov. Walker and Tourism Secretary Stephanie Klett were scheduled to tour the state Friday to tout the numbers with stops at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, the Title Town District in Green Bay, the Milwaukee County Zoo and in Chetek, where the governor will fish the Chetek Chain of Lakes on Saturday to help kick off the state’s fishing season.
Data for the annual report were compiled by Tourism Economics and Longwoods International, tourism research firms that study the market and conduct surveys to determine spending and visitor habits. The report noted that the number of visitors has, over each of the past four years, increased between 2 percent and 2.4 percent and that in 2017 about 110 million people took part in tourism activities. One in 13 jobs in the state is sustained by tourism, and overall business sales related to tourism rose 3.2 percent to $20.6 billion.
Three counties in the state had double-digit growth in direct tourism spending, led by Florence County where spending rose 16.7 percent to $5.7 million. In Eau Claire County, spending grew to $257 million, a 12.5 percent increase, while Chippewa County saw spending rise 10.5 percent to $98.4 million. Eight counties saw decreases in spending, including Adams County where spending was down 5.7 percent and Clark County, down 3.2 percent.
But the report offers more good news for Dane County, home to dozens of events each year that draw visitors from around the world. Those include the World Dairy Expo, Midwest Horse Fair, the Ironman competition, user groups for Epic Systems Corp. in Verona, Badgers football games and conferences for scientific and medical groups at Monona Terrace. New events in 2017 included the CrossFit Games, the All American Junior Sheep Show and the American Dairy Goat Association National Show, all at the Alliant Energy Center.
“They’re exposing so many people to the destination,” said Deb Archer, president and CEO of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau and Madison Area Sports Commission. “We always are really happy to see the growth continue, and every year it’s a little bit different mix of businesses that helps grow those numbers.”
The continued tourism growth in Dane County has resulted in an explosion of new hotels, plans for further redevelopment at the Alliant Energy Center and the addition of more restaurants, brewpubs, wineries, distilleries and retailers.
Tourism spending in Wisconsin Dells also rose for the eighth straight year, according to figures released by the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau, which commissioned its own study. It found that while rain and the threat of rain hampered visitor spending on most weekends in July, overall spending throughout the year rose by 2.6 percent to $1.16 billion. The area, known as the “waterpark capital of the world,” accounts for about 10 percent of state tourism spending.
“The numbers do look good for us,” said Romy Snyder, executive director of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau. “While summer (spending) grew a little bit, what really carried us were the three other seasons.”
Those seasons are supported by attendance at indoor water parks, basketball games and tournaments at Just-A-Game Field House and soccer and other youth sports tournaments at indoor and outdoor facilities owned by Woodside Sports in both Mauston and Wisconsin Dells. Spending on recreation activities was up 8 percent in Wisconsin Dells, while lodging was up 2 percent, dining increased 3.2 percent and transportation was up 2.5 percent.
Kalahari Resorts & Conventions is in the midst of a $35 million expansion project to double its convention space to 212,000 square feet that’s set for completion in 2019. Meanwhile, Sundara Inn & Spa is nearing the completion of an almost $10 million expansion project that will add 34,654 square feet and include a new outdoor saltwater pool, expanded culinary experiences, rooftop garden, retreat space and new fitness areas.
“We’ve been the benefactor of an economy that has been solid and unwavering,” Snyder said. “Our businesses are constantly reinventing themselves.”
Other key tourism counties around the state also had increases in spending. Brown County, home to the Green Bay Packers, saw spending rise 5.2 percent to $671 million, while spending increased 3.1 percent in nearby Door County to $358 million. Walworth County, a major destination for Illinois residents and home to Geneva Lake, saw tourism spending rise 2.8 percent to $544 million. In northern Wisconsin, Bayfield County, adjacent to Lake Superior, spending increased by 2.5 percent to $47.7 million, while Vilas County, known for its lakes and the World Championship Snowmobile Derby, was up 3.1 percent to $219 million.