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Pure Michigan outshone by efforts of other states

Dennis Lennox

For years now, the Tim Allen-narrated Pure Michigan commercials have lured visitors.

If numbers from state officials are to be believed then the $33 million Pure Michigan advertising campaign has made tourism the state’s third-largest sector of the economy behind only manufacturing and agriculture.

Those numbers have always drawn some skepticism, if only because the studies touting the economic benefits were commissioned by Pure Michigan advocates, as opposed to a disinterested third party.

Nevertheless, let’s assume the state actually receives $6.87 for every $1 spent, as touted by Travel Michigan, the largely unknown state agency that oversees Pure Michigan. In 2014 that amounted to $1.2 billion for businesses and $85.4 million in new tax revenue for state coffers.

Yet despite this success, Michigan lags behind the competition.

For starters, it’s governance.

Tourism is far too important to be handled by an offshoot of the state Economic Development Corp., an agency only slightly less obscure than Travel Michigan.

Gov. Rick Snyder should exercise his constitutional prerogatives and make Travel Michigan a cabinet-level department, as is the case in Wisconsin, New Mexico, Vermont and elsewhere.

Making things worse are the patchwork of local tourism offices and visitor bureaus scattered across Michigan. This convoluted structure creates overlap and inefficiencies.

Take last month’s World Travel Market in London, arguably the industry’s largest trade show. While other states, cities and counties exhibited alongside international destinations, Michigan was out of sight. Its only presence were copies of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau magazine and a homemade-looking DVD at the booth of Great Lakes USA, a joint venture with Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

A few days later, came news that Detroit would star in next year’s Pure Michigan campaign. It sounds great, but is about three years too late.

In the wake of the bankruptcy heard around the world, Detroit received millions in free advertising, if you buy the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Today, the level of international fascination just isn’t what it was a year or two ago.

The difficulty of getting to Detroit complicates long-term growth. While a hub for Delta Airlines, direct international flights are limited. Toronto and Chicago have many more options. It also doesn’t help when Delta seemingly neglects Detroit as it expands into Seattle, despite Metro’s strong passenger rankings.

Then there is Michigan’s untapped advantage on display any weekend in the parking lots of Troy’s Somerset Collection or the Ikea in Canton. Canadians come here in droves to shop, as prices on this side of the border are lower even with a weaker Canadian dollar. It’s time to take advantage of this by refunding the sales tax on purchases exported outside of Michigan.

Not only has this been done successfully elsewhere, but it could further the resurgence of Detroit, where retail shopping is still largely absent amid all the downtown redevelopment.

The bottom line? It’s time to rethink the way Michigan does tourism.

Dennis Lennox is a freelance columnist.