Tourism spending in Wisconsin in 2016 grew for the seventh straight year and continued its strong post-recession recovery while Dane County had its best year ever, according to figures released Friday.

Direct visitor spending statewide grew 3.3 percent to $12.3 billion as the number of visitors rose by 2.3 percent to nearly 108 million people, according to the results of an annual study commissioned by the state Department of Tourism.

Dane County remained No. 2 in visitor spending and outperformed the statewide average, increasing 5.2 percent to just over $1.2 billion. Sauk County, home to many of the attractions of the Wisconsin Dells area, ranked third with just over $1 billion in spending, an increase of 4.2 percent. Milwaukee led the state with $1.9 billion in spending, up 3.9 percent from 2015.

“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. “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.”

Walker, along with Tourism Secretary Stephanie Klett, revealed the numbers at a news conference in Madison and were also scheduled Friday to visit La Crosse, Appleton and Minocqua. National Travel and Tourism Week begins Sunday, and Friday’s announcement came on the eve of the statewide general fishing season opener, a big event for the state’s tourism industry.

According to the study, conducted by Longwoods International, direct and indirect spending by tourists had an overall impact of more than $20 billion on the state’s economy. The tourism sector, a major employment base, accounted for 8.1 percent of the jobs in Wisconsin.

“Visitor spending growth was led by spending on lodging with strong growth in all non-transportation sectors as lower gas prices, growing wages, and strong consumer confidence meant both growth in travel and spending per trip,” the Longwoods report stated.

Room demand surpassed 17 million rooms in 2016, an increase of 2.3 percent, which helped boost the average room rate by 3.1 percent and increase room revenue by 5.4 percent to $2.7 billion. Business travel accounted for just 12.1 percent of state travelers and helped generate $1.5 billion in spending while 87.9 percent were leisure travelers and accounted for $10.8 billion in spending.

In Dane County, spending was up in all categories.

Combined direct and indirect spending topped $2 billion, up 4.5 percent from 2015. Employment in the tourism sector rose 3 percent to 21,654 jobs while labor income was $635 million, an increase of 7 percent.

The county is home to a wide range of events, meetings and destinations that draw in a cross-section of leisure and business travelers from around the world. In 2016, events included five major national environmental conventions, new sporting events — like the Boomerang National Championships — and thousands of visitors to Epic Systems Corp. in Verona.

The diversity helped Dane County have one of the largest increases among the state’s 72 counties.

“It was a big year for us,” said Deb Archer, president and CEO of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Madison Area Sports Commission. “What we want to be able to do is to sustain the levels we have because they’re healthy. We have a really fortunate diversity and that’s why, when the recession did hit, our numbers were not hit nearly (as much as) a lot of places.”

But the report also showed signs of some softening in the statewide numbers.

Since 2010, when spending increased 7.9 percent over 2009, the growth rate has been headed downward, according to the report. In 2014, spending rose 5.3 percent over 2013 and in 2015, tourism spending grew 4.4 percent. The 3.3 percent rise in spending for 2016 is the lowest growth rate since 2009, a recession year when tourism spending decreased by 7.8 percent.

The study also showed that in 2016, there were 16 counties in the state that had a decrease in tourism spending. In Jackson County, spending dropped almost 9 percent to $35.1 million, while spending in Monroe County decreased 6.1 percent to $76.9 million, largely due to flooding that curtailed ATV use, Klett said.

Three counties had tourism growth of less than 1 percent. Vilas County, home to more than 1,200 lakes and thousands of vacation homes, had an increase of just 0.09 percent, while Oconto County spending increased 0.21 percent and Trempealeau County spending increased 0.26 percent.

Klett, however, remains bullish on the industry and its future in the state despite the competition from surrounding states.

“I believe in our convention and visitors bureaus and our chambers that they’re going to continue to consistently grow their markets no matter what challenges come forward,” Klett said. “When you have this kind of growth, year after year after year, I’m sure it’s bound to slow down. But I’m going after the big whale with the tarter sauce in my canoe.”

“I believe in our convention and visitors bureaus and our chambers xxxxxxxxxxxxx Stephanie Klett, Tourism Secretary
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Barry Adams covers regional and business news for the Wisconsin State Journal.