August 29, 2014 at 9:47 am

Labor Day weekend to bolster solid year for Michigan tourism

The long Labor Day weekend signals the unofficial end of Michigan’s busiest tourist season — and indications are lots of people wandered throughout the mitten state.

Experts say despite this year’s cool spring and summer, 2014 is on track for being a profitable year for the state’s tourism industry — one of Michigan’s largest industries. The fall season is also expected to be strong.

“I’ve been hearing from my contacts around the state, and more evidence that the cooler temps may not have put too much of a damper on things,” said Dan McCole, a Michigan State University professor who studies tourism trends.

McCole had predicted tourism spending would increase 4.5 percent this year.

“I’m confident we’re on track for growth in the neighborhood of what we forecast back in March.”

In 2013, there was $18.7 billion in travel spending in the state. Of that, $13.8 billion was leisure travel spending, according to Pure Michigan, the state’s travel and tourism site.

“That is the highest amount of leisure travel spending that we’ve had in the state,” said Michelle Grinnell, Pure Michigan spokeswoman.

Longwoods International, which conducts a study each year to determine how many people travel to the state as a result of the Pure Michigan campaign, showed that in 2013, Michigan had 4 million out-of-state visitors — an increase of 300,000 over 2012 — and they spent more than $1.2 billion, McCole said.

Alison Silk, spokeswoman for the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, said the cooler summer didn’t deter travelers from heading to the northern Michigan hot spot.

“People don’t seem to mind at all. I think they actually enjoy it because they are escaping the heat from parts of southern Michigan,” Silk said. “It has been fantastic. It has been a very strong tourism season so far and we expect that to continue.”

Mike Norton, spokesman for Traverse City Tourism, said occupancy rates at hotels are good and are expected to maintain strong until the first week of November. Folks who put off their vacations earlier in the summer season because of cooler temperatures made up for it in July, he said.

Grinnellsaid based on bridge traffic, travel for the Fourth of July holiday increased by 2.4 percent over 2013.

July especially strong

A major indicator of how strong the 2014 summer tourism season has been is hotel and motel occupancy, which is on trend for record rates.

“Over the last five years, almost every month has been an increase over the previous year,” he said.

“July was another great month for tourism in Michigan. Hotel occupancy rates were up 2.3 percent over July last year (which was a good year), and is at a level not seen in over a decade (if even then).”

Occupancy was up 2.1 percent for the first seven months of the year compared with the January-July 2013 period, according to STR, a Hendersonville, Tennessee, hotel tracking service. Metro Detroit hotels have been 64.3 percent occupied for the first seven months of the year, which is the highest it has been since 1999 and 2000.

McCole said Michigan draws in-state and out-of-state travelers because of its natural beauty and appealing climate.

“One of the places where the Pure Michigan campaign has had tremendous success in drawing people here is from the South, where it is so prohibitively hot during the year,” McCole said.

He said the latest visitor ratio he’s seen was 42 percent out-of-state visitors to 58 percent from in-state.

While activities such as boating took a dip in years past, it is still a big part of what people like to do when they come to the state, McCole said.

“Actually, boating has rebounded a bit since the recession,” he said.

Michigan also has a thriving recreational fishing industry that attracts throngs of out-of-state anglers.

The American Sportsfishing Association put Michigan third in the nation for angler expenditures, which reached nearly $2.5 billion. Such expenditures include fishing licenses, tackle, fuel and booking fishing charters. The association also found in 2013 that Michigan was the second most popular fishing destination by non-resident anglers, behind Florida, generating more than $320 million.

Changing seasons

Just because summer is winding down doesn’t mean the state’s tourism industry grinds to a halt.

Fall hues are slowly emerging from northern Michigan to Metro Detroit, which also means more tourism dollars for the state.

“Based on economic indicators, tourism trends and how the summer has gone, I would expect the fall to be consistent with summer with continued growth in number of travelers and spending compared to fall of last year,” McCole said.

Grinnell of Pure Michigan said the economic impact of leisure travel during the fall months in 2012 was $2.7 billion up from $2.3 billion in 2011. In 2011 an estimated $300 million was attributed to fall color tours. Figures were not available for 2013.

Fall is an important tourist draw said Norton of Traverse City Tourism.

“People, for instance, do a huge amount of combining wine tasting touring with color touring or they come up to do shopping and color touring,” he said.

Bert Cregg, associate professor in Michigan State University’s horticulture and forestry departments, said fall colors are present near Cadillac and around the Lansing and East Lansing areas, which is not unusual.

“In 2012 we had heat and drought and we saw some early color then,” he said. “This year it is almost an opposite scenario.”

Cooler temperatures and wetter conditions may depress nutrient uptake, which can cause trees to start to turn color early, he said.

The normal pattern of fall colors is northern or lower peninsula in late September to early October and the Lansing-area around mid-October.

The southeastern portion of the state will begin to see fall colors in mid- to late October, Cregg said.

Gas prices help

Like a magnet, the kaleidoscope of fall leaf colors is a draw for a Sunday drive or a weekend getaway.

AAA Travel projects 34.7 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from home during the Labor Day holiday weekend, the highest volume since 2008 and a 1.3 percent increase over 2013.

In Michigan, more than 1.12 million people are expected to travel during the Labor Day holiday, a nearly 1 percent increase compared to last year.

Lower gas prices play into the numbers.

The current per gallon price of unleaded gas in Michigan is $3.43 compared to $3.52 last year.

uwatson@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2613

Above: Tourist traffic has been strong in Traverse City. (John L. Russell / Special to The Detroit News)
Left: Annie Heldt of Chateau Fontaine serves wine samples to Pat and Guy ... (John L. Russell / Special to The Detroit News)