Being a tourist in your own town is easier than you may think

Sometimes it's hard to rediscover your town. You see it every day, but how you can see it as a tourist might? We've talked with some local experts to find out just how to be "A Tourist In Your Own Town."
While being a tourist in your own town may seem daunting or mundane, there are many ways to rediscover your own town with fresh eyes and ideas.

Traverse City Area: Tourist In My Own Town

Traverse City area residents have the chance to literally be a "Tourist In My Own Town" by participating in a local program by that name.

"Twenty years ago a business associate kept stating his desire to feel like a tourist in your own town. The seed was sown," says Robert Adams, Sr., director of franchising with Tourist In My Own Town.

It's a simple concept--local restaurants and lodging businesses provide discounts for their off-season and slower days of the week for locals, who purchase a card to redeem these discounts.

"We believe our business model is sustainable for all. Coupons have issues and affiliates need the marginal economic dollar," Adams says.

The card is $60 and is available through May 20; it can be purchased by residents of Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, and Leelanau counties.

The beauty of this card is that it helps locals to rediscover their town in a new light.

"The card can pay for itself in a very short time. Get out and enjoy," Adams says.

Discounts on the card must meet a certain minimum--be offered on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, and be 25 percent off or more, but businesses can choose to offer their discount beyond that.

For example, cardholders can get 25 percent off both food and drinks Sunday through Tuesday at Phil's on Front for both the cardholder and a guest. Or, you can head to VI Grill in Suttons Bay and receive 25 percent off both food and drinks any day of the week, with some exclusions.

Lodging discounts are also available. One may wonder, "Why would I want to stay at a hotel when I can just stay at home?"

The answer is simple: To be a tourist in your own town.

Until you truly see your town as a visitor, it can be hard to really take it all in and feel like you are going on a retreat. To be a true tourist, spending a couple of nights at a hotel may just be the answer. For those looking to try this "staycation," the card offers a discount of 25 percent Sunday through Thursday at West Bay Beach in Traverse City, for example.

Almost 100 cards have been sold thus far and Adams is hoping to reach 300 this year and 1,000 next year, growing each year by adding more businesses. Cards will be good for an entire year from purchase.

Because the next card period begins in late spring, it will dip into the busy tourist season. Adams doesn't see that as a problem for getting businesses on board.

"We will solicit affiliates to honor early birds and slow days. The magic in the concept is to match slow periods with local card holders--most locals like to 'bob and weave' around tourists," Adams says.

Marquette County Exploration

Marquette County is full of places locals can visit and enjoy, says Sue Menhennick, print and mail specialist at Marquette County CVB. From Presque Isle to nearby Lakenenland and the Cliffs Shaft Mine Museum, there is no lack in the variety of options available.

Menhennick points out there are plenty of ways to explore nature as well as venues that provide educational opportunities.

If you are short on cash, there are many things to do and see in the area that cost little to nothing to enjoy. For example, you can bike along Lake Superior in Marquette, relax on the beach at Lake Independence in Big Bay or go bird watching at Au Train's Songbird Trail. Or, you can check out one of the local museums that generally don't cost much.

"The Maritime Museum and Lighthouse, Marquette Regional History Center, Cliffs Shaft Mine Museum, and the Michigan Iron Industry Museum all provide information on how the area got to be what it is today," she says.

Taking a ride around town in your car and taking in the scenery is also another inexpensive option. Or, you can leave the touring to someone else like Marquette Harbor Cruises.

Each town in the area also offers a unique downtown. From the nightlife, galleries, and restaurants of Marquette to the antique shops and historic buildings of Ishpeming, rediscovering downtown provides a unique experience for any local.

Supporting downtown businesses as well as any other local businesses is vital, says Menhennick.

"There is no doubt that tourism is an important part of the local economy. Not only are we putting money back into our community rather than taking it elsewhere, we also are experiencing the tourist attractions we market and can better understand and enjoy them."

Sometime as locals, we forget just how amazing our surroundings are and how lucky we are to live here. Seeing your town from a fresh point of view can be important to help you reinvigorate your love for your hometown.

"Open your eyes and really look. Where are more beautiful water views than here? Pristine beaches? We have them. Quiet solitude? For sure. Quaint downtown shopping? Yes. Fabulous restaurants? They are all here," Menhennick says.

Planning a weekend in town, as a sort of staycation, can be done with a little planning. Doing research, finding new things you are interested in and conversing with friends about their favorite hot spots can all help with the planning process. Activities that you rediscover could be as simple as having a picnic at a park you have never been to or hike a trail you have never been on. Menhennick also suggests creating an itinerary for the weekend to make sure you fit in everything you want to do and check here for ideas.

Passport to Midland

Passport to Midland, formerly Be A Tourist In Your Own Town, has been around for a little more than a decade and has worked to pique interest in locals, introducing them to their own town in a new light and allowing them to really see all that the area has to offer, says Kristy LeVasseur, director of communications with the Midland Area Chamber of Commerce. In turn, they hoped that this newfound excitement would lead to more tourism, via word of mouth from the locals who would tell their out-of-town friends and family about the area.

Taking place every other year, the program allows residents to bring a "passport" with them to participating businesses and gain free entry.

"By doing this, residents will see, first-hand, all of the great things we have and continue to go back to those places to enjoy this area," says LeVasseur.

The passport can be acquired through the chamber and includes a schedule of the weekend's events and participating businesses.

For example, during the last Passport to Midland, locals could gain free entry to Dow Gardens and Midland Civic Arena, while free samples were passed out at local eateries including The Gourmet Cupcake Shoppe and Big E's Sports Grill. Other businesses offered free classes, tours, and gatherings.

The next passport date will take place sometime in 2015, with the exact date being announced later this year.

In the meantime, LeVasseur offers advice for those looking to become a tourist in their own town, starting with planning a certain day to explore your town.

"Make it point to find places in your town that you may have heard of, but don't know anything about," LeVasseur suggests. "Watch the sunset from the Wetlands Trail at the Chippewa Nature Center, play beach volleyball at Stratford Park, or ride your bike to get ice cream at Great Lakes Ice Cream Company...It's really easy to get caught up in regular everyday life, but if you take an hour or two and plan something new, you could find something amazing."

In order to get excited about your town and see it with a fresh point of view, as a visitor might, LeVasseur suggest inviting a friend or family member to town and in the process of planning you will likely discover something fun and new. Plus, the Midland Area Chamber of Commerce is always there to help. Ideas can also be found at Visit Michigan's Great Lakes Bay Region's website.

Beyond finding new and fun things to do, being a tourist in your own town also helps to support the local economy, which can be seen in action seen through the WEconomic Power campaign.

"When we spend money here, that money stays here and helps the local economic generator keep turning. Those dollars go to businesses and organizations that pay taxes to help fix the roads and keep our community safe; they pay our neighbors' wages and help keep the cycle of charitable giving turning," LeVasseur says.

Still need some tourism ideas? Well, if you are looking for a craft drink experience, you may want to visit WhichCraft Taproom. Want to see a show? You may enjoy Midland Center for the Arts. Looking for some great tasting food? Your taste buds may fancy Cafe Zinc. Or, you can rent a bike from Ray's Bike Shop and take a ride on the Rail Trail, LeVasseur suggests.

"I love being a tourist in my own area; we have so much here, it would be a shame to let it pass by unnoticed," LeVasseur says.

These are just a few ideas of a way to experience your town in a new light. Ready to get out there? Get started today and tell us about your experience of being a tourist in your own town!

Julia Woehrer is a freelance writer, photographer and assistant marketing manager. She attended the School of Art and Design at Northern Michigan University where she concentrated in photography and minored in journalism. She volunteers at a local no-kill cat shelter and enjoys spending time with her cats, Bella and Macy.
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