MARQUETTE - With gas prices remaining high, a trend over the past few summers of people taking vacations closer to home will likely continue, boosting the economies of many Upper Peninsula areas involved in tourism and parks.
"Visitors to our state parks and other recreation areas help to support Upper Peninsula communities by purchasing their groceries, gas, outdoor gear, firewood and other camping items at the local shops," said Michigan Department of Natural Resources Spokeswoman Debbie Munson Badini in Marquette.
"Statewide, we estimate that the 22 million annual visitors to our state parks and recreation areas contribute $580 million to the state's economy each year."
From left, Stephanie Pirkola, Kassidy Pirkola, David Pirkola and Caitlyn Lee, all of Ishpeming, enjoy an afternoon at their campsite at Van Riper State Park. (Journal file photo)
As an added incentive to encourage park visitors to shop locally, the DNR has partnered with nearly 1,000 Michigan businesses statewide to offer Passport Perks discounts to anyone with a Recreation Passport, which is required for entrance to state parks and recreation areas.
The passports cost $10 and can be purchased when drivers renew their vehicle license plates, granting users annual entry to state parks, recreation areas, boat launches, campgrounds and state pathways.
As of the end of March 2012, 24.6 percent of motorists statewide have opted to get the Recreation Passport since it launched in 2010. Locally, 26.4 percent of Marquette County motorists have purchased the Passport, while Houghton County leads the UP with 42.8 percent of motorists opting in.
Badini said there are hundreds of U.P. businesses that offer Passport Perks discounts, including 30 locations in Marquette County.
Badini said another economic impact of the state parks that can't be ignored is the number of people employed both year-round and on a seasonal basis by the DNR's Parks and Recreation Division in parts of the state where the economy tends to revolve somewhat around tourism and natural resources.
Michigan is home to 100 state parks and recreation areas, offering visitors more than 13,000 campsites, trails, access to inland lakes, rivers and the Great Lakes.
In November, DNR officials announced that Michigan state parks and recreation areas received the 2011 National Recreation and Park Association Gold Medal for the top state park system in the nation.
Last year, visitation at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was up 12.4 percent last year to more than 560,000.
For almost a decade, annual park visitation held steady at about 425,000. Beginning in 2010, an increase began with an 11 percent improvement. Park Superintendent Jim Northup said recently there were several reasons attributed to the increase.
"They include publicity surround the completion of the Alger County Highway 58 project, the Pure Michigan (advertising) campaign, the Kid Rock video (shot at the park) and the park simply becoming better known throughout the country," Northup said. "More people are beginning to understand what a wonderful area this is. I do not believe there is any major reason to expect that visitation will decline significantly in the coming years."
Meanwhile, a new report on park spending for 2010 showed Pictured Rocks visitors spent more than $21 million in nearby communities, supporting more than 344 jobs in the area.
Most of the spending and jobs cited in the Economic Benefits to Local Communities from National Park Visitation and Payroll report is related to lodging, food and beverage service (52 percent), followed by other retail (29 percent), entertainment and amusements (10 percent), gas and local transportation (7 percent) and groceries (2 percent).
"The people and the business owners in communities near national parks have always known their economic value," said Pictured Rocks Superintendent Jim Northup. "Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is important for a number of reasons, but one reason is its critical importance to the local and regional economy."
Recently, Perkins Park manager Kim Bourgeois provided statistics to the Marquette County Board, which showed that while the number of occupied sites each season at that county park in Big Bay has stayed largely the same since 1984, the percentage of campers from Marquette County increased from 29 percent in 1995 to 63 percent this past year.
The reasons for the shift could range from high gas prices to improvements at the park.
In 1984, 3,142 sites were occupied and 3,459 in 2011, a difference of 317. The highest number of occupied sites during that time span was 3,826 in 1998, while the lowest was 2,865 in 1985.
Bourgeois produced a table showing statistics on camper origin percentages from 1994-2001 and 2011, which clearly showed a change in where the park's campers are coming from.
Over those years, the 63 percent from Marquette County logged last year was the highest. The lowest percentage of county campers from those years was 29 percent in 1995.
More information about the Recreation Passport and Passport Perks can be found at www.michigan.gov/recreationpassport. More information about Michigan's state parks and recreation areas can be found at www.michigan.gov/camping.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is email@example.com.