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Wisconsin tourism industry looks forward to big year

Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — As the 2021 summer travel season begins, there are hope, optimism and even predictions of a big rebound for the tourism industry, which was 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 rising to pre-pandemic numbers, 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, featuring such acts as 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.” Its website advertises hikes with a view, ocean-like beaches, “pizza farms,” waterfalls, award-winning public golf courses and eateries including Tom’s Burned Down Cafe on Madeline Island and Driftless Cafe in downtown Viroqua.

Experts say a full recovery for the state 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 an 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, acting secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, 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. UW-Madison’s Union Terrace fully reopened on May 10, and the World Dairy Expo will return in October. UW-Madison officials are planning for Badgers football fans to return to Camp Randall Stadium this fall, and Art Fair on the Square is scheduled for Sept. 25-26.

In 2020, tourism spending in Dane County plunged by $618 million, a 42.5% decrease from the comparable figure for 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.

Similar developments are occurring elsewhere in 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. Lying on the eastern shoreline of Eagle Lake, the resort is a former logging camp but now welcomes 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.

“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. If the prediction proves accurate, the number will be up 60% from last year, when only 23 million traveled, the lowest on record since AAA began recording such figures in 2000. The expected strong increase in demand from last year’s holiday, which fell during the early phase of the pandemic.

“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.”

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