Last week, more than 300 tourism leaders from Michigan gathered to talk about the state‘s challenged tourism economy. Depending on who does the counting, tourism is either the second or third largest industry in Michigan, so any way you look at it, tourism is important. Certainly, tourism is the backbone on the economy in Northern Michigan.
But since 9/11, the industry has been challenged. But that‘s only the case in Michigan as surrounding states have either returned or surpassed their pre-9/11 tourism economies. Michigan, the nation‘s seventh largest tourism economy, finds itself at or near the bottom in several industry indicators, such as hotel occupancy rates ranking dead last in 2006 for the second year in a row.
In ratio to its rank as the seventh largest tourist economy, Michigan is among the poorest funded states when it comes to tourism marketing dollars. Neighboring states, including Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania, spend two or three times what we do to market tourism.
Much of the blame has been laid on the condition of the state‘s economy, the auto industry woes, and high gas prices, along with the lack of marketing.
That might be part of it.
But not everyone in the state appears to be challenged by the economy, as evidenced by the masses heading out of state during Spring Break. In fact, Michigan is the only Midwest state with a tourism deficit (meaning Michiganders are spending more money on traveling outside of the state than is being spent on travel within). So the economy and gas prices are not keeping many from our state from traveling; they are just choosing destinations outside of Michigan.
The question is why?
It appears that Michigans challenged tourism economy is rooted in the lack of leadership. This was evidenced last week at the state‘s tourism conference at the Grand Traverse Resort. Despite the importance of this industry, Governor Granholm did not attend the conference. Although she found time to come to Traverse City for a town hall meeting, her schedule didnt allow for attendance at the conference.
Her staffers stated she didnt want to reward one of the conference sponsors; the Michigan Hotel, Motel & Resort Association, which endorsed Granholms opponent, Dick DeVos, last year.
Her elected colleagues in the House and Senate didnt fare much better. Only a couple attended, and during the legislative sessions they offered little insight, except for the fact that they appreciate having meat and cheese trays and other perks provided to them when they are traveling.
It is obvious by the lack of attendance from Governor Granholm and the Legislature at the conference that Michigans tourism industry is paralyzed by politics.
Lansing needs to quit playing games and spending their time strategizing on the 2008 and 2010 campaigns, and start working on improving the economy.
One quick fix would be tourism. The first thing to be done is to give the industry the same status as Agriculture, Transportation, Education and Corrections and make it a cabinet department. Currently tourism (Travel Michigan) falls under the quasi-governmental agency, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
Sure, tourism helps with economic development, but travelers dont see themselves as economic drivers -- they are here to have fun.
So, Governor Granholm and the legislature give Travel Michigan cabinet level status and establish a stand-alone website. Michigan.org is confusing for the traveler who wants information on travel attractions in the state. If you want an example of a great tourism website, check out Wisconsins
www.travelwisconsin.com, a site that is inviting and easy to navigate.
In Northern Michigan we cant wait for Lansing to get their act together.
Local tourism leaders such as Brad Van Dommelen, president of the Traverse City
Convention and Visitors Bureau, have been
aggressively implementing various initiatives, from buying a tank of gas for visitors to creating a girlfriends‘ getaway (current trends show women are the primary decision makers when it comes to travel plans).
Probably Van Dommelen greatest undertaking is educating the public on the value of tourism. For some, tourism has become a dirty word here in the north country, but Van Dommelen has been aggressively working to change that. He has launched what is essentially a PR campaign, touting the benefits of tourism to the region.
Such benefits include $1 billion annually of economic impact and nearly 14,000 jobs in Grand Traverse County alone, all while contributing more than $10 million in taxes annually.
Other residual benefits include the region‘s healthcare system, cultural arts offerings, local shopping and dining. All are maintaining a high level of quality because they are supported by the region‘s tourism economy.
Wake up Lansing; stop worrying about the elections and start fixing the state‘s problems. Try starting with tourism. Maybe if people come and visit the state, they will like it and move here, start businesses, invest into the economy and pay taxes.
It‘s interesting that most Michiganders are unwilling to have their taxes increased, but they are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars traveling outside of Michigan to benefit economies elsewhere. Try Saying Yes To Michigan this year and next year - it might just keep your taxes from going up.