Tourism promoters say business has held up well this summer, despite the sluggish economy and starting out the traditionally busiest travel season of the year with gasoline prices hovering around $2 per gallon.
Helping to offset the economic conditions was the steady decline in gas prices in the weeks following Memorial Day, although they’ve moved upward in the last two weeks. Good weather conditions that West Michigan has enjoyed for much of the summer also enticed people to take a trip.
“I would say we’re doing much better than expected,” said Laurel Nease, coordinator of the Grand Haven-Spring Lake Visitors Bureau.
The state’s $10 billion tourism industry was generally forecast to grow by up to 3 percent this year, a projection that was lower than in recent years due to the economy.
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 projected.
The MSU forecast reflected slower growth than was anticipated in travel spending in Michigan because of the economic conditions. The state’s tourism industry has enjoyed annual revenue increases of 5 percent to 6 percent over the past several years.
AAA Michigan also forecast a 3 percent growth in travel spending this year in Michigan. The auto club believes last-minute getaways and the extended four-day Labor Day holiday weekend should generate an “end-of-summer surge” in travel, enabling the industry to achieve or exceed the prediction.
“We’re pretty confident about summer tourism, all in all,” said Nancy Cain, public relations manager for AAA Michigan. “By all indications, people are still traveling.”
While quantitative data is hard to generate until receipts are tallied in September, most travel bureau directors agree and expect the industry to meet predictions as the Labor Day weekend approaches, although there are indications that travelers are not spending as much while on vacation.
Retailers and attractions in Grand Haven report a “mixed bag” when it comes to spending by tourists, although lodging appears to be doing well, Nease said.
The travel bureau reports strong gains for the summer, when compared to last year. Revenues from the state’s room tax were up 16 percent alone in June, although Nease attributes a large part of the increase to the renovation of two motels in the past year. She expects to see a similar year-to-year increase when July revenues are reported.
The general feeling among tourism promoters in Lake Michigan communities is that the soft economy and high gas prices at the beginning of the season played into their favor. Travelers may have been more apt to stay closer to home and take in a few days at the beach, rather than go on an extended vacation.
Grand Haven’s proximity to Detroit and Chicago, both of which are just three hours and less than a tank of gas away, helps its cause during slow economy and high gasoline prices, Nease said.
“Sometimes a tough economy can work in our favor,” Nease said. “We’re so close to those major metropolitan markets, we become a more desirable location.”
Travel and tourism-related businesses in Holland have held their own and have seen “a lot of last-minute” travelers who decide at the end of the week to take a weekend getaway, said Sally Laukitis of the Holland Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“The weekends have been very, very strong all up and down the lakeshore,” Laukitis said, giving credit to the favorable weather conditions.
Despite the busy weekends, the Holland CVB reports a slight decrease in the area’s hotel and motel occupancy rate for the summer, a decline Laukitis attributes to the addition of 114 new rooms with the opening this year of a local Holiday Inn Express. Overall, the Holland market has 1,197 rooms.
The business volumes seen on weekends have not been evident during the week, Laukitis said. Members report soft business during the week both in occupancy and sales, the latter of which is an indication that visitors are “watching their pennies” when it comes to spending on meals and souvenirs.
Travelers are also using the slow economy to seek a bargain, Laukitis said.
“People aren’t spending as much. When they walk in the door, they’re looking at any sort of discount or incentive that is out there,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out” at year’s end.
Saugatuck, where the economy is perhaps more tourist-based than any other community in West Michigan, is having a similar summer, with lodging reporting strong weekends, soft weekdays and retailers seeing “mixed results,” said Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck-Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Visitors “are staying overnight and they’re eating, but they may not be shopping as much,” Fairchild said. “People are obviously taking it easy in their spending.”