Attendees at a summer festival in Houghton are pictured. The Michigan Economic Development Corportation reported that tourism spending is on the upswing in the Copper Country. (Daily Mining Gazette photo)


Daily Mining GazetteHOUGHTON — Tourism spending in the Copper Country rebounded in 2021 after initially dropping during the pandemic, according to a recent Michigan Economic Development Corp. report.

Visitors spent $84.2 million in Houghton County in 2021, a 20.7% increase over 2020 and a new record for the county. Keweenaw County’s $21.6 million was 13.2% higher than the previous year.

Baraga and Ontonagon counties also bounced back to near or above 2019 levels. Baraga was up 25.3% to $44.9 million. Ontonagon County’s 36% hike brought its visitor spending up to $43.8 million, higher than any of the four most recent pre-pandemic years.

The remoteness of the Keweenaw appealed to many visitors in summer and fall 2020, blunting the overall decline that year; Houghton County’s decline that year was the smallest in the U.P., Visit Keweenaw said.

Houghton and Keweenaw counties accounted for almost 8% of U.P. visitor spending in 2021. With a bigger overall drop than the Keweenaw in 2020, the U.P. overall increased by a higher percentage in 2021 at 24.9%.

“You had people who chose not to travel in 2020, whether it was for economic concerns or public safety concerns, and they said ‘Well, I haven’t traveled for 18 months and I’m ready to get out there and do something,’” said Visit Keweenaw Executive Director Brad Barnett. “Simultaneously, you had a lot of people who, because of stimulus funding, just had more money in their pockets.”

With only two flights a day headed to the Keweenaw, travel is also highly correlated to gas prices, Barnett said.

Statewide, the strongest-growing sector was in lodging and recreation. Of the $24 billion spent by Michigan visitors in 2021. The largest chunk — 25% — went to transport. Of the rest, 23% was on food and beverage, 23% on lodging, 15% on retail and 14% toward recreation and entertainment.

In the Keweenaw, 2021 was marked by “the return of the leisure traveler,” Barnett said. Adventure trips, whether mountain biking or ORV riding, were still popular, but didn’t see the same numbers as previous years.

“They just want to come up here for the outdoors, go for a hike, eat at a restaurant,” Barnett said. “Maybe they’re camping. Not necessarily for those very specific activities like ORV and mountain biking as much as we’ve seen in the past.”

Visit Keweenaw is still putting together its own numbers for the final two months of 2022. Based on what it’s seen so far, visitor numbers were above pre-pandemic numbers, but down slightly from 2021, Barnett said.

High gas prices and inflation led to a sluggish start to the tourism season through the early summer. And there wasn’t the pent-up demand of 2021.

“A lot of the commentary we’ve had over the last two or three years was ‘2020-2021, was that a blip? Was that something that just happened because of all these factors and they just aligned in a certain way, or is this maybe a new normal in terms of visitation?’” he said. “And like most things in life, it’s a little bit of both.”

The visitor activity translates to jobs. Statewide, more than 188,000 jobs are tied to visitor employment — an increase of 17,500 jobs over 2020, but still 43,000 below pre-pandemic levels.

In Keweenaw County, 60% of jobs were supported by visitor spending, compared to about 10% in Houghton County, the MEDC said.

Statewide, visitor spending, visitor-supported jobs and business sales created $5.9 billion in government revenue in 2021, up $400 million from 2020. In the Keweenaw, the number was around $10 million.

“We often think of how visitor spending supports that job or that business, but in some ways by bringing those dollars in from out of state and from out of the area that helps offset some of the costs that we would have to pay as community members if we wanted to maintain what we had,” Barnett said.

Barnett said getting the numbers from the MEDC helps Visit Keweenaw tell the more holistic story of how tourism affects Houghton and Keweenaw counties.

Barnett was also happy to see the MEDC’s numbers match up with what Visit Keweenaw had compiled itself.

“For us, it’s validation that what we’re sharing on our website and with our members and our stakeholders in the community is probably pretty darn close to what the reality is on the ground,” he said.

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