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Michigan's tourism industry heads into summer of uncertainty

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Traverse City — It’s going to be a different summer.

While the reopening of some restaurants, bars, distilleries, wineries and retail stores in parts of northern Michigan and all of the Upper Peninsula helps kick off the traditional vacation season, tourism officials across the state are unsure what the summer holds.

Sherry Oyer, right, enjoys a day on the beach at Bryant Park with her granddaughter Marilyn Oyer on Friday, May 22, 2020. Living in Traverse City, the two practiced social distancing from a few other beach goers and relaxed along the shore of Grand Traverse Bay.

“It’s very uncertain,” said Renee Monforton, vice president of marketing and communications at the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s kind of unknown, but from what I’m seeing, there is a pent-up demand to get out. People want to go somewhere, anywhere.”

Michigan’s tourism industry, one of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic, is a $25.7 billion-a-year industry, supporting countless mom-and-pop businesses, restaurants, hotels and recreation companies. The state counted some 125 million visitors in 2018, up 2.1 million from the year before.

“I think there’s going to be more in-state travel this year,” said David Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, part of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “But without a crystal ball, it’s hard to tell when the state will open to true travel, but as we warm up, as we are allowed to travel, we’re going to see a tremendous desire to travel for leisure. Much of that will be directed Up North. The Upper Peninsula will have one of its busiest seasons.”

Even as Up North reopens, many destinations remain closed, including the Grand Hotel and Mackinac Island (ferry service is not available to visitors), campgrounds at Michigan state parks and forests.

Doug and Kim Lapp of Mount Pleasant sit outside a restaurant Friday in Traverse City on Friday. The couple drove up for the weekend. "We are so happy to be outside in Traverse City eating great food on a nice summer day," said Kim.

Despite the green light, many wineries in the Traverse City region also are shuttered this holiday weekend despite loosened restrictions that began Friday, including allowing bars and restaurants to operate at half capacity. Among them is Shady Lane Cellars in Suttons Bay, even though Memorial Day is one of the busiest times of the year. 

“This year feels different for a lot of reasons. The obvious is coming out of the COVID-19 shutdowns, and now trying to adjust to the parameters,” said Rick DeBlasio, general manager, noting its tasting room will open June 1 with new safety measures in place. “We really have been forced to reinvent the wheel. The guest experience will be different, not worse, but hopefully better and safer.”

For the first time in 20 years, AAA has not predicted how many people will travel over the Memorial Day weekend because the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19. Anecdotal reports suggest fewer people will hit the road compared to years past for what is considered the unofficial start of the summer travel season, AAA explained.

“Last year, 43 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day Weekend — the second-highest travel volume on record since AAA began tracking holiday travel volumes in 2000,” said Adrienne Woodland, spokesperson, AAA-The Auto Club Group. “With social distancing guidelines still in practice, this holiday weekend’s travel volume is likely to set a record low.”

A hand-washing station sits on the sidewalk along Traverse City's East Front Street on Friday. Stations have been placed around the downtown area.

Close to home

Some 19 million people — from outside Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties — visited Metro Detroit last year.

“It’ll be an interesting summer to say the least,” Monforton said. “We definitely expect people to stay close to home ... and get to know the attractions in their own backyard.”

Like elsewhere in the state, many big events in Metro Detroit have been canceled, including the Belle Isle Grand Prix and the North American International Auto Show. The Movement Electronic Music Festival, traditionally held Memorial Day weekend, has been rescheduled for September. Those events would have filled hotels and brought thousands of visitors, Monforton said. 

The hotel occupancy rate in the metropolitan region was averaging 70%, even leading into the pandemic, she said.

More:Whitmer extends stay-at-home order through June 12

More:Restaurants, bars, stores reopen in northern Michigan, UP

“We do get a sense people want to travel Up North, but it’s not totally open yet either,” Monforton said.

Last year, The Henry Ford, one of Metro Detroit’s most-visited popular attractions, counted nearly 740,000 visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The Dearborn institution remains closed through at least June 28.

With its temporary closing and cancellation of major summer events, including Civil War Remembrance, Memorial Day weekend, Motor Muster and Maker Faire Detroit, the number of visitors this summer is expected to drop significantly. Many of its weekend events draw more than 20,000 people.

Brent Ott, CFO of The Henry Ford, said an internal task force has been created to examine a multi-phase reopening plan, one focused on a gradual approach that will include new safety practices and measures to ensure the well-being of employees, volunteers and guests.

“When we reopen is not our choice alone, as we will continue to comply with the state and federal mandates. We look forward to opening as soon as it’s safely possible,” Ott said.

Heavy traffic along US-31 North in East Bay Township near Traverse City signals the beginning of the holiday weekend.

Traffic drop

After being closed for six weeks, Cherry Republic last weekend reopened its six stores across Michigan, including its woodsy campus in Glen Arbor, a tourist hamlet wedged between Sleeping Bear Bay and the Glen Lakes. Foot traffic was about one-third what it normally would be in mid-May, but an uptick in customers is expected this weekend.

“I expect Glen Arbor will be what it normally is Memorial Day weekend,” said Bob Sutherland, owner of the cherry-centric business. “Two things are happening. It’s a holiday weekend, and on top of that, it’s the opening of restaurants in northern Michigan. People haven’t been able to sit down in restaurants for months. Those convergences will overcome the anxiety of people who weren’t ready to come out.”

Nick Marco, 26, talks with the media and customers outside Brady's Bar in downtown Traverse City moments before they opened the doors for business at 12:01 a.m. May 22 for the first time since mid-March.

Downtown Traverse City typically swells with visitors during the holiday weekend, drawing visitors from across the Midwest and beyond to enjoy its Lake Michigan beaches, parks, shopping, restaurants, wineries and outdoor activities.

Despite the influx of tourists Friday, officials are predicting above 20% of the normal tourist traffic in June and 40-50% in July and August, said Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism. Part of the decline is attributed to the cancellation of big summer events, including the National Cherry Festival and the Traverse City Film Festival.

“There are a myriad of reasons we won’t get back to 100% this summer,” he said, citing continued restrictions on some businesses, challenges with consumer confidence and lingering concerns about COVID-19.

The Downtown Development Authority has placed nine handwashing stations throughout downtown. Safety procedures vary among hotels, restaurants, bars, golf courses, and marinas, but most are enhancing cleaning practices, implementing contactless processes and payments, screening employees for symptoms before shifts and requiring everyone to wear a face mask.

“I think we’re going to learn a lot about how things are going to open up after this weekend,” he said. “So much is predicated on the virus and what transpires from that. We are being vigilant and being prepared for when we can open businesses and do so in an appropriate and safe manner.”

At Golden Shoes in Traverse City, Gus Walworth, right, checks store owner Bill Golden's temperature the shoe store opened for the summer under strict guidelines for safety for customers and employees. A health sheet is kept by Golden for all employees to track their body temperatures.

UP traffic surges 

In the last three weeks, the Upper Peninsula has experienced a surge in visitors, many of them from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois. The western end of the UP shares a 200-mile border with Wisconsin and is a four-hour drive from Minneapolis. Traveling through Wisconsin is the quickest route from Chicago.

Tourism is a $1.5 billion-a-year industry in the U.P., drawing outdoor enthusiasts for hiking, camping, mountain biking and kayaking. The most popular destinations are Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which counts about 1 million visitors a year, the Porcupine Mountains and Tahquamenon Falls.

The return of tourists has many communities concerned about the spread of the coronavirus.

More:Michigan stores prepare to reopen next week — with some restrictions

“Communities are split right down the middle about reopening to tourists. One side wants to open up 100%; the other side doesn’t want visitors because they’re afraid of the coronavirus spreading,” said Tom Nemacheck, executive director of the Upper Peninsula travel and Recreation Association.

Travel Michigan’s Lorenz said there is some misunderstanding about the governor’s phased reopening.

“Northern Michigan has opened to some capacity, but that doesn’t mean the travel order has changed,” he said. “People who don’t live in that area shouldn’t go there unless they are going to their second home or are helping with COVID-19 situations.”

He said michigan.org this summer will be encouraging residents and other visitors to explore small towns, outdoor spots and attractions they’re not familiar with to help alleviate tourism pressures on places like Traverse City and Mackinac Island.

“I’m going to encourage state-cations. I encourage people to stay close to home. They feel safer in communities they already know,” Lorenz said. “I encourage them to go to open spaces, places with nature, places where you can practice social distancing and stay safe.”