Report details tourism patterns, economic benefits

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette University of Michigan’s Economic Growth Institute director of research Sarah Crane and research project manager Eli McClain present their findings on a study of the western U.P. tourism economy at the Wake Up Keweenaw breakfast Wednesday.

HOUGHTON — Tourism contributes about $360 million annually to the local economy in the Western Upper Peninsula, a recent study found.

Researchers from the University of Michigan’s Economic Growth Institute presented the findings of a multi-year study of the patterns and economic impact of tourism in the western U.P.’s at Wednesday’s Wake Up Keweenaw breakfast.

Visit Keweenaw and the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region had pursued the study, which was funded through the Economic Development Administration. The study is aimed at providing information to aid in decision-making and future strategies.

“We really believe that this project will help all of our community businesses, not only our tourist business, but for everyone to understand exactly what the tourism industry does for our community,” said Lisa McKenzie, regional planner with WUPPDR.

After spending several months in fall 2022 developing a visitor survey, the group launched it in January 2023, collecting data for a full year. Flyers directing visitors to the online survey were distributed at more than 175 locations, from gas stations to trailheads, while tablets for real-time surveys were available at visitors centers. In that time, they got 3,334 responses, representing more than 10,000 people coming to the Keweenaw.

Additionally, researchers used visitation data from state parks, local campgrounds, short-term rentals and other sites.

The median trip to the western U.P. lasted four days, with a median of three days spent in Houghton County. The most visitors came from Michigan, followed by Wisconsin and Minnesota. About 35% of those trips included visiting or staying in multiple counties during the trip.

“What we saw across the entire sample is that travel in the Western U.P., visitation into the Western U.P. is highly regional,” said EGI research project manager Eli McClain. “And so folks see this area as being somewhere to explore and drive around and visit many different places.”

Visitors were also asked to name what activities they’d done in the Keweenaw by season. Downhill skiing and snowboarding topped the list in winter, with 37% of respondents. Art, culture and history was the biggest driver in spring (35%), while hiking led the way in summer and fall (68% and 61%, respectively). Waterfall viewing — 60% in summer, 55% in fall — was the other activity to crack 50% in any season.

Northern Lights/Dark Sky viewing stood out as the only category with a top-five finish in all four seasons.

The high numbers for cross country skiing (27%) registered as one of the biggest surprises in the data for Brad Barnett, executive director of Visit Keweenaw. He thought part of the reason may be the number of spots like chalets where skiers can congregate (and spot survey flyers), where snowmobiling has fewer activity-specific bottlenecks.

The survey asked people to list the activities they had participated in while in the area but did not make a distinction between ones that were the primary reason for the trip or ones that people did because they happened to be in the area.

“Let’s just say you come up here in the summer, and you’re ORVing, but you might also go say, ‘I’m going to check out a waterfall here, I’m going to check out the beach, I’m going to check out the dark skies,'” Barnett said.

McClain said the limitations of the survey were the result of a tradeoff, keeping the survey short enough to ensure responses.

The tourism visits have a large economic impact for the area. Overnight visitor spending averages $356.61 in the western U.P., and $407.17 in Houghton County, the largest portion going to lodging.

Daytrippers spend $101.61 in the western U.P., more than 40% going toward food and beverage.

The money injected by tourism created an estimated 3,060 jobs, resulting in $99.2 million in income.

Of those jobs, 2,401 were directly tied to tourism. Nearly half (1,163) were tied to lodging, closely followed by recreation and entertainment (839).

Of the $357.8 million in economic output, tourism directly accounted for $249.5 million, with almost $110 million coming in indirect and induced spending.

“The main impacts for tourism are in those direct jobs,” said Sarah Crane, director of research for EGI. “The ripple effects are not as large when I start doing things for manufacturing or different industries like that. There’s much higher indirect purchases.”

The tax revenue from the visits added up to $35.5 million between municipalities, county, state and special districts such as police, fire and schools.

Visitors were also asked for an open-ended list of services they want to see added in the Keweenaw. The largest chunk, accounting for 32% of the responses, dealt with infrastructure issues such as road quality, cell service, transportation and electric vehicle chargers. The next largest grouping was “nothing,” from people who want to see the Keweenaw kept as it is.

The sort of comprehensive data for the western U.P. is unique, Barnett said.

“The data that we usually get from studies like for Michigan, the sample size is spread out across the entire state,” he said. “Typically their sample of the entire state is around 2,000, so it’s hard to drill down at the county level to start figuring that stuff out.”

The Keweenaw scored extremely well in the Net Promoter Score, which measures whether visitors would recommend the trip to their friends. A 50 is considered very good, McClain said; the Keweenaw got an 81.7.

More than 75% of visitors said they would be likely to return, McClain said.

“I don’t think it surprised me, but I was like, ‘This is wonderful, this is a great thing to see,'” he said.


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