May 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

Warmer weather heats up Mich. tourism season

Mackinac Island is open and ready for tourist traffic. Officials are predicting a strong summer season throughout the state. (John L. Russell / Special to The Detroit News)

Temperatures are finally rising in Michigan — and so are attendance numbers at many of the state’s top tourist attractions.

This winter’s record-breaking snow levels and a cooler-than-normal spring kept many visitors away from destinations such as The Henry Ford, Mackinac Island and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. But now that the weather has warmed, tourism officials predict strong summer numbers for a state that’s spending millions to market itself as an international tourist hotspot.

“The weather seems to have turned around,” said Michelle Grinnell, a public relations manager with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “For Michiganians traveling in the state, people are excited to get outdoors and take advantage of the weather. I think that will help drive some tourism to some of these places.”

In a Michigan State University tourism outlook report released in March, officials predicted a strong 2014, taking into account consumer confidence, the economy, gas prices and other factors.

The report predicted a 1.5 percent rise in travel volume and a 4.5 percent rise in travel spending.

Grinnell said hotel occupancy was 50.6 percent through March, up from 49.5 percent at the same time last year.

But the weather has stopped that number from climbing higher.

Late spring ice across the Straits of Mackinac nearly prevented the Grand Hotel and other hotels, bars and restaurants on Mackinac Island from opening on time. The ice and cold kept visitors away from museums across the Midwest. And a cool, rainy spring meant fewer campers at Sleeping Bear Dunes this spring, said Merrith Baughman, chief of interpretations and visitor services.

But since last weekend, attendance numbers have started to climb.

“We’ve really seen an increase,” she said. “We’re predicting a pretty busy summer.”

The dunes are one of Michigan’s most popular attractions. In 2011, ABC’s “Good Morning America” named it the most beautiful place in the world, leading to a spike in attendance. This year, the site was officially designated as wilderness by the federal government, and Baughman thinks that could help bring more out-of-towners out, too.

“We’re continuing to see both strong regional visitation and new folks come in to visit the park,” she said.

Michigan’s U.S. senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, visited Sleeping Bear on Friday to celebrate the wilderness designation.

“This wilderness designation is the result of a long journey of many years of hard work,” Levin said.

“The designation will protect countless treasures, including the magnificent sand dunes, miles of picturesque beaches, bluffs towering over Lake Michigan, lush forests and portions of two islands. At the same time, the designation will ensure public access to important recreational and cultural resources for many generations to come.”

Sleeping Bear typically draws more than a million visitors a year, but in 2013 it was a sore spot in an otherwise sterling tourism season.

The federal government shut down Sleeping Bear, along with sites like Pictured Rocks, for more than two weeks.

“That did affect visitation,” Baughman said. “It was a time when a lot of people come to visit the park.”

Travel spending up

Overall, Michigan tourism did well in 2013.

Visitors spent $18.7 billion last year — including a record $13.8 billion in leisure travel spending.

Those numbers — which include business spending — from a yearly report released by D.K. Shifflet & Associates, represent a boost in spending over previous years. In 2012, visitors spent $18 billion in Michigan; in 2011, they spent $17.7 billion.

Pure Michigan, the state’s award-winning tourism advertising campaign, recently launched its $6.2 million summer regional campaign.

This year, 36 private-sector partners are contributing money to the campaign, which will include radio spots, billboards and TV ads. New partners include Cheboygan, Escanaba, Keweenaw Peninsula, Mackinaw City the Petoskey area and South Haven.

In 2013, Pure Michigan is credited with 4 million trips by out-of-state visitors, who spent $1.2 billion in the state, up from 3.8 million such trips in 2012, according to a state-financed estimate.

State data show hotel occupancy in 2013 was a record 57.5 percent, up nearly a percentage point from the year before. The average daily room rate was $87.40, also a record. Most hotel analysts credit the Pure Michigan campaign for drawing in new visitors.

That means more tourists are visiting popular sites like Traverse City, Mackinac Island and Frankenmuth, and more are looking to Michigan’s sometimes-overlooked east coast.

Metro area popular

Tourism officials have said Metro Detroit is a popular spot for out-of-towners, and about 1.7 million visitors a year visit The Henry Ford in Dearborn, which includes Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford Museum, said John Neilson, senior director of museum and attractions.

“We’re looking forward to a great summer after a really difficult winter,” Neilson said. “I know our visitation has been down, but we’re very upbeat and optimistic we’re going to have a solid year.”

The slow spring officially ended when about 30,000 visitors came out to Civil War remembrance events over Memorial Day weekend, Neilson said. The village and museum have a number of events planned nearly every weekend this summer. to draw visitors.

They include a “Women Who Rock” traveling exhibit from Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Dodge and 50th anniversary of the Mustang and the popular Maker Faire.

“We have a lot of things going on,” Neilson said. “Overall, I think in this area, the economy is slowly coming back.

“We think more people are traveling because we see a lot of out-of-towners. We’re looking forward to a good summer.”
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About 30,000 visitors came out for Civil War remembrance events last ... (Jose Juarez / Special to The Detroit News)