The welcome mat is out in Michigan tourist towns

Summer is around the corner, and small towns across rural Michigan are bracing for what could be another banner year of tourism.

Michigan tourism officials predict an uptick in seasonal business in the months ahead, following what was a banner year for many resort communities.

The pandemic drove many people to more rural areas and national and state parks to be outdoors and away from the crowds in big cities and more popular tourist destinations. Both Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore have experienced a record number of visitors since the pandemic began.

“Covid has changed the way we travel,” says Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, part of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, noting the influx of visitors to small towns and outdoor recreation areas. “People have been seeking more wellness and outdoor experiences. They’re looking for more places with trails and kayaking and things like that. I don’t think that is going to change.”

However, Lorenz does expect some dynamics in travel to change. Big cities should experience more visitors as things normalize. Rising gas prices, air travel issues and weather could play a big role in the travel picture, too. The expectation is people will travel closer to home, maybe taking a two-hour instead of a four-hour trip, take multiple short vacations and also book their getaways around the weather.

“I think this is good news for smaller communities, primarily those less visited by travelers,” Lorenz says, naming places like Coldwater, Mt. Pleasant and Alpena and those offering cultural activities. “I think people are looking for new and different experiences. They want to see new places and new people. We encourage people to go out and find them.”

That’s good news for many communities in rural Michigan.

The influx of tourists does not come without challenges. Many communities continue to face seasonal worker shortages, meaning visitors can expect longer waits, reduced hours or temporary closings at some establishments. Concerned about the patience of tourists as well as the well-being of seasonal staff, at least one community is preparing to launch a “Be Kind” campaign this month. 

Part of the reason behind the seasonal worker shortage is the lack of affordable housing for those employees. High real estate prices in the wake of the pandemic have intensified the issue, being felt everywhere from Traverse City to Tawas City. 

Opening the door

Memorial Day, the traditional kick off to the summer season, is poised to be the busiest in three years, building on a travel resurgence that began earlier this spring, according to AAA Michigan.  AAA predicts over 1.1 million Michiganders will travel 50 miles or more from home this Memorial Day weekend.  That’s a nearly an 8 percent increase over 2021, bringing travel volumes almost in line with those from 2015.

Tawas City, located along the shores of Lake Huron in northeastern lower Michigan, is among the smaller towns experiencing an upturn in tourists, with hotel accommodations for the July 4 holiday already booked.

“Our community is bouncing back well from Covid,” says Sam Duvall, executive director of the Tawas Area Chamber of Commerce. “We are attracting more people. Instead of going to larger cities, they’re finding smaller outlets. Tawas has so much to offer.”

Those amenities include beaches, an inviting downtown, a bike path and outdoor activities, including boating, fishing and hiking. A stretch of the coastline along Route 23 through Tawas City is void of development, offering travelers unobstructed views of Lake Huron.

While some year-round residents grumble about increased traffic and longer waits at restaurants and businesses, Duvall says tourism fuels the town’s economy. And festivals, like the annual Tawas Uncork’d, featuring wine and food, raise money for local organizations. The  Friends of the East Tawas Library benefit from the wine festival.
Across the state, in southwest Michigan, Saugatuck, Douglas and Fennville also expect brisk business again this summer.

“The last two summers were busier than before Covid,” says Lisa Mize, who is executive director of the Saugatuck Douglas Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, noting the upswing occurred even with shutdowns in the first year of the pandemic. "We didn't know what to expect but it was the perfect storm. We had spectacular weather and people wanted to get out."

With its Lake Michigan beaches, outdoor recreation and charming art towns, vineyards and farm-to-table restaurants, the region became a magnet for throngs of visitors from Detroit, Chicago, and Indianapolis. 

Even with inflation and other issues, Mize expects a strong summer. “As long as the temps are warm and the weather is good, I think they’ll come,” she says, adding that some people are traveling differently, avoiding airports and watching the weather. “People are doing more last-minute trips, just wanting to hop in the car and go.”

Bouncing back

Farther north along Lake Michigan, Ludington has rebounded from a tourism slump in 2020, experiencing a record summer last year. 

Ludington lodging establishments experienced their strongest tourism year in 2021, with room rental income at an all-time high of $19.2 million, exceeding 2020 and 2019 figures, tourism officials say. In addition, Ludington State Park, two miles north of the city, broke attendance records last year. The 5,300-acre park counted 953,129 visitors in 2021, up nearly 6 percent from the previous year. 

“We expected tourism to surpass 2020 levels, but seeing room rental income and state park visitors also exceed 2019 pre-pandemic figures shows that Ludington’s tourism industry is resilient,” said Brandy Miller, executive director of the Ludington Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Based on inquiries to her office so far, she expects an equally robust summer this year.

"The Ludington area has the ideal mix of amenities – including plenty of outdoor space – to offer visitors a safe, easily accessible destination," she says. "All signs point to a healthy and thriving tourism industry that plays an important role in bolstering Mason County’s economy.”

Ludington also boasts some of the cultural experiences Travel Michigan’s Lorenz talks about. The city is home to lighthouses, history and maritime museums (nearby is Historic White Pine Village and the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum). Combined, the museums draw about 20,000 visitors a year.

“We’re really becoming a cultural destination,” says Rebecca Berringer, executive director of the Mason County Historical Society, noting museum visits also are on the upswing.  “A lot of people come here to take in the outdoors but they also enjoy the cultural attractions. We have a lot of cultural assets.”

Those assets extend beyond the city to include themed trails in and around Ludington, exploring Mason County's lumbering history, sculpture, and barn art.

“Cultural attractions draw a different demographic of visitors,” she says. “They tend to stay longer in a community and spend more money. They want to take in local restaurants, local shops and get a feel for the culture of the area.”

In nearby Manistee, cultural amenities such as the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Performing Arts, are helping lure visitors to this community -- home to about 6,000 people -- at the mouth of the Manistee River on Lake Michigan.

“If there’s one thing that sells the area, it’s nature, the coastline and all the outdoor amenities in Manistee. But it’s really a bonus to have two historic theaters in a small town like Manistee and to have live concerts and that sort of thing available to people.”  says Xavier Verna, executive director of the regional arts center, referring to the Ramsdell Theatre and the Vogue Theatre. 

Like other small towns being increasingly discovered by tourists, Manistee is experiencing some growth -- two new hotels are in the works -- and some discomfort. 

“There’s a general feeling among people who live here that you can always tell who is from out of town,” Verna says. “Some people don’t like the noise, the traffic, dealing with more people at businesses. They like their little quiet spot but most people here see the benefit of tourism. It’s these visitors who are allowing our little town to stay active year round.”