Economic Downturn May Spark Lakeshore Tourism

    MUSKEGON — Tourism promoters in West Michigan are optimistic about the upcoming travel season, despite the economic slowdown and a new forecast that foresees slower growth in travel spending this year.

    The economic slowdown, in fact, could even help the tourist trade in some communities. Travelers, rather than taking a week to go somewhere far away, tend to take shorter vacations to closer destinations during slower economic times, tourism promoters say.

    That has tourism bureaus in towns along the Lake Michigan shoreline that are an easy drive from key markets like Chicago and Detroit feeling relatively upbeat about the upcoming travel season.

    “When you see signs of a downturn, people are less likely to make large investments in their vacation and they stay closer to home,” said Laurel Nease, coordinator of the Grand Haven/Spring Lake Area Visitors Bureau. “We’ll be in an excellent position to capture that.”

    That optimism comes despite an outlook that forecasts growth in travel spending in Michigan this year to be about half of what it’s been for the past decade.

    The Michigan State University Travel, Tourism and Recreations Resource Center expects 2001 travel spending to grow about 3 percent over last year. Travel volume should grow by 2 percent this year, the center projects.

    Working against the state’s $10 billion tourism industry are the economic slowdown, the resulting rise in unemployment rates across Michigan, falling consumer confidence, falling stock prices that affect personal wealth, and relatively high gasoline prices.

    Those same factors, however, could benefit attractions that are within an easy three- to six-hour drive from population centers. The MSU center suggests that with the slower economy, travelers may choose to delay their travel plans until the last minute and stay relatively close to home.

    “Our research suggests that trip planning horizons are shorter than has been commonly assumed and with consumer confidence declining, even more households than usual are likely to be in a wait-and-see travel planning mode this year,” the MSU report states.

    Close to home also means a less expensive vacation, an angle the Muskegon County Convention and Visitors Bureau hopes to take advantage of this season, especially given its three state parks on Lake Michigan that combined have about 3,000 camp sites.

    “If you want to take an inexpensive vacation, that’s for you,” Muskegon County CVB Executive Director Joann Hatch said.

    Muskegon is also looking forward to a tall ship festival an August that’s expected to draw 150,000 people to town over the four-day event.

    To take advantage of the economic conditions, travel bureaus need to step up their marketing in nearby markets, partner with nearby communities, and offer more packages to travelers, the MSU report states.

    The Holland Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has already stepped up such marketing efforts, although for different reasons, Executive Director Sally Laukitis said.

    The bureau, for the first time, is working closer than ever this year with tourist attractions and motels and hotels in the area to offer discounts and travel packages. The bureau launched the effort after seeing travel volumes in 2000 that were “a little soft,” Laukitis said.

    Given the current conditions, the marketing shift should position the Holland area well to lure weekend travelers who “come home on Thursday and decide to hop in the car this weekend and head our way,” she said. The effort took on a heightened importance with the economic slowdown, Laukitis said.

    “It was in our plans but we just started taking a little harder look at it,” she said. “We are trying to be really aggressive to see if we can corner that little impulse market that we think will show its head this year.

    “We realize summer won’t just take care of itself anymore. You have to be forward-thinking. It’ll be a good exercise for us.”

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