Tourism’s Bright Spot

Aug 19, 2011

Nobody needs me to tell them that this has been a rough decade for Michigan’s economy. The roughest since the Great Depression of the nineteen-thirties.

And, as the stock market plunge indicates, a return to the prosperity we used to take for granted is nowhere in sight.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t a few bright spots, and one of the brightest has been tourism. A few weeks ago, I spent an hour with George Zimmerman, who runs Travel Michigan the official state tourism promotion agency.

He’s running one of the few state enterprises that are growing. Tourism spending has become a seventeen billion dollar business, and studies agree that his Pure Michigan branding and advertising campaign has had a lot to do with it.

When I first heard that tourism was increasing as the recession deepened, I thought that this was a reflection of the economy. I figured local people were taking the kids to Lake Michigan instead of Disneyland. Some of that indeed may be happening, but that’s not the biggest reason for tourism’s success.

It is out-of-staters who, transfixed by the brilliant Pure Michigan ads, are coming here as never before. Last year, according to a spokesman for the campaign, out-of-state visitor spending for recreational travel was up more than twenty percent.

For the first time, visitors from other states spent more on vacation travel in Michigan than those who live here did.

Independent studies have shown that every dollar the state spends on the Pure Michigan campaign brings in almost three dollars in new taxes from visitors it lures to the state. That record of success helped prevent the legislature from cutting the program’s funding when it was cutting virtually everything else this spring.

Frankly, Michigan should have been doing more to push tourism for years -- especially in this region. Zimmerman, who was director of tourism in Ohio ten years ago, doesn’t like to put down his former state. But he knows Ohio has nothing to compete with the Sleeping Bear Dunes or the stunning vistas of the Upper Peninsula.

If there is any place to see an enchanted sunset in Indiana, I don’t know it. But there is a threat to Michigan tourism that’s related to the economy, and that’s the environment. When I was a teenager in the nineteen-sixties, trips to Lake Huron had to be canceled because the beaches were covered by rotting dead alewives.

These fish are normally eaten by the magnificent lake trout anglers come to Michigan to catch. But the lake trout were almost wiped out by sea lampreys, one of our first major destructive invasive species. The state fought back, and the lamprey population was gradually controlled. But there are now signs they may be making a comeback, and the federal government isn't helping.

The Obama Administration has proposed cutting the budget for lamprey control by fifteen percent.

Meanwhile, underfunded experts are still struggling to prevent Asian carp from entering the lakes and possibly destroying the fishing industry. It’s nice to have a government willing to promote tourism in what is one of the nation’s most stunning states.

But it could all be lost if we aren’t willing to spend what’s needed to protect it. After all, “Impure Michigan” would make a really lousy slogan.