Analysis of tourism economic boost in UP available to the public

Shown is a newly painted message “Welcome to Houghton – Gateway to the Keweenaw” on the edge of a city parking lot off Lakeshore Drive, at the site of the former parking deck. (Photo courtesy of Damian Wolf via the Houghton Daily Mining Gazette)

HANCOCK — The first in-depth economic impact analysis of tourism in the Western U.P. has been released to the public.

The Western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region had been considering the project for years, said Executive D 0irector Jerry Wuorenmaa.“Travel Michigan, Pure Michigan has some local impact data available related to tourism, but it’s not really based on a whole lot of local research on the ground, new data collection,” Wuorenmaa said.

WUPPDR was able to receive a grant through the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which received American Rescue Plan Act funds for travel, tourism and outdoor recreation items. The analysis was developed in a cooperative effort by the University of Michigan Economic Growth Institute, which WUPPDR had recently engaged with on a smaller project.

“We brought up the idea to them, and it seemed like a good collaborative project,” Wuorenmaa said.

Contributing partner Visit Keweenaw provided considerable support and input throughout the project, WUPPDR said. Other regional groups also added local insights and outreach.

WUPPDR undertook the project to get data on the economic impacts to dollars and employment, as well as tax revenue, in the six-county area. Those include direct spending from tourists, as well as business-to-business spending and the spending by employees in jobs created by tourism.

According to the study, the money brought in by tourism created more than 3,000 jobs in the area, and led to almost $360 million in economic output.

Having concrete data on the economic impacts will be an asset for future grant applications related to tourism, Wuorenmaa said. He’s working with one community currently seeking pedestrian and non-motorized impacts along a major highway to reduce safety conflicts.

“A lot of those people walking and driving and visitors to the area, and that’s where the congestion comes from,” he said. “We might say this project wouldn’t normally be that competitive because of the size of the community, but it has a case here because of how many visitors there are to the area.”

Having the report out there can also be an educational tool for local leaders, Wuorenmaa said: “You might have your own thoughts about what tourism means to the area, but here are some numbers you might not have been aware of.”

The study also collected extensive survey data from the visitors to the area about their activities and spending habits, including breakdowns by season.

Hiking and waterfall viewing stood out as popular activities, Wuorenmaa said. Sixty-eight percent of summer visitors went hiking at some point during their stay, gnarly matched by the 60% of people who went to a waterfall.

Northern Lights viewing was also a consistent driver of tourism, bringing people to the area in all four seasons.

“That’s something we want to help other organizations understand, that’s something that could be a growth opportunity,” Wuorenmaa said.

While there’s a perception that tourism is associated with lower-wage jobs, the data demonstrates it also affects other industries, Wuorenmaa said. He said it can also be used by destination marketing organizations and chambers of commerce to look at new aspects for promotion. That could be a mix of already popular things, like hiking and snowmobiles, but also underpromoted activities such as dark sky viewing and inland water trails for kayaking, Wuorenmaa said.

“This could hit home the point that this is something that they could explore,” he said.

Other questions in the survey pointed to things that could be improved. While the percentage of visitors traveling to the Keweenaw in fully electric vehicles was in the low single digits, some respondents pointed out they didn’t think there were enough chargers in the Keweenaw.

Others were concerned about other amenities and infrastructure, road quality being one of the top concerns.

“That’s another case where you could put in an application — ‘Well, all these visitors said they didn’t enjoy the quality of the roads’ — so this could be improved,” he said.

Funded through a COVID-era grant, the study will likely be a one-time effort, Wuorenmaa said.

“It was really valuable and unique to be able to get this snapshot in time of the industry,” which grew at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and managed to stay high as the pandemic waned, Wuorenmaa said.

The full report can be viewed at wuppdr.org/tourism-industry.


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