Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, along with several legislators, has declared August as “Michigan Camping & Recreation Vehicle Month.” Camping is a key contributor to the state’s $17 billion tourism industry. The declaration supports the economic and recreational contributions that the camping industry contributes to Michigan’s overall tourism, according to a news release.
Both Michiganders and visitors alike take advantage of the state’s array of sun, freshwater coastline, 19 million acres of woodlands, soft breezes and fresh air, where the temperate climate allows for great camping and outdoor recreation — making it the ultimate Pure Michigan experience.
Michigan has more than 950 licensed private recreation vehicle parks and campgrounds, with more than 111,000 licensed campsites. The state has more than 160 county or government operated campgrounds with over 14,700 sites — from rustic to full-service. Michigan also boasts over 300,000 licensed recreation vehicles, including motorhomes and travel trailers. In 2010, Michigan ranked third in the nation in new recreation vehicle sales (behind Texas and California).
Camping and RVing encourages visitors and locals alike to partake in activities such as boating, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, paddling, pedaling, golfing, geocaching, nature watching, photography, and other outdoor activities, which also highlight Michigan’s great outdoor parks and recreation areas.
Michigan is home to 98 state parks and recreation areas — as well as 133 state forest campgrounds — under the auspices of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and seven forests/parks/lakeshores in Michigan under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. Collectively, Michigan offers 15,000 sites on state and federal lands designated for camping.
Michigan’s two non-profit camping organizations: MARVAC — the Michigan Association of Recreation Vehicles & Campgrounds and ARVC Michigan — the Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds of Michigan, equally promote and support private campground and RV parks throughout the state.
All state lands are managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, while the national parks and lakeshores are managed by the National Park Service and/or the U.S. Forest Service. All campgrounds — including the companion recreational activities — are among the tourism destinations promoted by Travel Michigan and its award-winning Pure Michigan campaign.
Most southern Michigan state park campgrounds are booked to near capacity this weekend and, surprise, they might be pretty full throughout the summer.
The Grand Rapids Press reported that year-to-date campsite reservations are up 14.5% from 2010, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
That’s one of several indicators that suggest state tourism could be in for a hot summer.
“I was pleasantly surprised because I thought with the general economy in Michigan, and gas prices taking that leap they did, that would be a depressing factor,” said Harold Herta, chief of resource management in the DNR’s parks and recreation division.
“Maybe it’s more people are sticking closer to home and they’re not going to Disney World. Maybe people have adjusted to life in Michigan and hunkered down.”
A Michigan State University study projects a 4% increase in tourism spending this year, fueled largely by a return of wealthier travelers to higher-end destinations. But rising campground bookings suggest an increase across the tourism market, said Dan McCole, who authored the report with Sarah Nicholls.
Tourism spending was up 3.4% last year after a 13.6% decline in 2009.
Though the study released in early spring was based on a peak summer gas price of $3.70 per gallon, McCole said the current price flirting with $4 a gallon likely will have little impact on most travelers. A road trip in a typical car from Grand Rapids to the Mackinac Bridge and back, for example, would cost an extra $32 in gas compared to last summer’s price at the pump.
“Vacation has become a right,” said McCole, a professor in MSU’s Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies. “Because vacation is still important to people, they’re likely to say ‘Hey, you know what, we’ll make cuts in other parts of our lives. The extra $30 (in gas), we’ll suck it up because we really want to have this vacation.’”
More than 1.1 million Michigan residents will travel this weekend, based on responses to a AAA Michigan survey, and more than 90% will drive. Six out of 10 respondents said gas prices will not affect their plans, while 70% of the rest said they would cut spending in other areas. Some travelers plan to take a shorter trip.
Gun Lake Rentals in Barry County bought two more boats and raised some prices in anticipation of high demand this summer. About 75% of his fleet is reserved for this weekend, owner Alex Cazala said.
“We’ve seen a change from people coming from out of town and doing weekly rentals to a lot of local people coming out for the day from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo,” he said. “Basically, people are staying local so we’re still busy.
“We expect to see good business as long as we get a nice warm summer.”
The summer forecast calls for temperatures cooler than last year’s 82.6-degree average high, but not as cold as the typical 77.6-degree high in 2009, with normal precipitation, said Bob Suttle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids.
Good weather proved helpful in attracting an estimated 400,000-plus people to this month’s Tulip Time, said Gwen Auwerda, executive director. Hotel stays were up 33% from last year, she said.
“We feel that attendance was up,” Auwerda said. “It didn’t appear that anybody had a struggle getting here. We a had a lot of people from what we call the ‘one tank away’ as well as people from all over the country (and beyond).”
Reservations at Boyne in northern Michigan are “on par” with past years, with no change in the average 2.5-day length of stay, spokeswoman Erin Ernst said. A longer booking window in the winter has shortened this spring, perhaps due to rising gas prices, she said.
McCole said tourist destinations farther from big cities could see less traffic if gas prices push higher.
In Kent County, year-to-date hotel revenue is up 15.1% from 2010 and advanced bookings through July are fairly strong, said Janet Korn, vice president of marketing for Experience Grand Rapids. The Church of the Brethren in July will bring 5,500 people to DeVos Place for the summer’s largest convention.
Local hotels report that growth is coming in all of their markets, she said.
“Probably we had farther to climb,” Korn said. “That’s OK because now we’re benefiting from that.
“If there’s a 4% growth in tourism spending, some of that might be captured in the hotels and then food and beverage establishments would be first in line to benefit from that as well. If that (extra spending) equates to more people, then cultural attractions will also benefit.”
For the first time in years, summer tourism heated up for Michigan, the Detroit Free Press reported.
“Mother Nature surely did her part,” said Brian Lawson of Crystal Mountain resort in Thompsonville. “The whole summer was warm and sunny.”
Lodging occupancy rates jumped 13% from 2009. Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks and even Isle Royale saw visitor increases. Michigan campground bookings were up, even for the Upper Peninsula.
“It’s nice to have hit bottom and maybe come up again,” said Greg Hokans, chief of development and marketing for the Mackinac State Historic Parks.
Other reasons for the jump? Stable gas prices, rebounding group bookings and more people vacationing close to home.
Grand Traverse Bay Resort’s J. Michael DeAgostino also credited the Pure Michigan TV ad campaign — now defunct — for boosting out-of-state visitors during the crucial June-August season.
The summer even finished strong, said Harold Herta, chief of resource management at the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
Rebound In State Tourism Encourages Hotels, Parks
Abundant sunshine, high temps and lower gas prices helped propel Michigan’s summer tourism season up from the depths of 2009, new figures show.
Hotel occupancy for the June-August period rose 13% over last year. August was especially strong with a nearly 68% occupancy rate, according to data from Smith Travel Research of Hendersonville, Tenn. It was the best summer showing for Michigan hotels since 2007.
“This year we had six weeks where we were at 100% occupancy,” said Sally DeMarr, manager of the Khardomah Lodge in Grand Haven. “From July 2 to mid-August, we didn’t have a pillow available.”
Results were more complex for other tourism businesses, but overall the trend was positive:
- Big resorts: Grand Traverse Resort in Acme saw its group bookings — which make up two-thirds of its business — rise this summer, an important indicator that businesses are starting to feel more confident than last year, said spokesman J. Michael DeAgostino. Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville had a record July and August, said spokesman Brian Lawson. However, Crystal saw more short-term bookings and price-conscious customers. In addition, 49% of summer visitors were first-timers, many from Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Ontario. Lawson credited the Pure Michigan tourism TV ad campaign with improving its business. Ironically, Pure Michigan was axed this fall when the Michigan Legislature killed its funding, leaving tourism folks about $5 million to keep up a minimal effort through the state’s tourism website. It has a slight chance of being resurrected before year’s end.
- Michigan’s national parks properties: Way up. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire had a really strong August, with visitors up 35% from 2009. For the year, attendance was up 13%. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Munising had 12.3% more visitors this summer, and even Isle Royale National Park, a remote island in the middle of Lake Superior, had 5.7% more. Good weather helped. The National Weather Service said summer 2010 was the fourth hottest on record in southeast Michigan, as measured at Detroit Metro Airport. The average summer temperature was 74.4 degrees — 3 degrees above normal.
- Michigan state park campgrounds: Usage was up 5%, said Harold Herta, chief of resource management for parks at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment. “Overall we were up in a pretty good geographic distribution,” he said, adding that more campers ventured to the Upper Peninsula this year after all but abandoning the U.P. in 2008 and 2009. About 85% of state campground users are from Michigan.
- Mackinac Bridge crossings: Up 2.2% for the three-month summer period and up 2.5% for the year. The worst year for bridge crossings was 2008, when gas was $4 a gallon. The traffic uptick “is a positive sign that things are turning around,” said Robert J. Sweeney, administrator of the Mackinac Bridge Authority. Gas prices averaged about $2.70 to $2.75 per gallon this summer.
- Ferries: The S.S. Badger in Ludington saw increases in its commercial truck traffic and a “nice improvement” on passenger traffic on its ferry across Lake Michigan, said Lynda Matson, vice president of customer service and marketing.
- Traverse City: August numbers aren’t out yet, but hotel numbers were up 4% for June and 10% for July. The National Cherry Festival revenue was up 4.5% over 2009. The region did more advertising this year, and “I think there was a slight uptick in consumer confidence going into the summer season and some pent-up demand from reduced travel over the past year due to economic conditions,” said Mike Norton, spokesman for the city’s convention and visitors bureau.
- Bed and breakfasts: Summer business depended on where you were, said Mike Venturini, owner of Munro House B&B in Jonesville and president of Michigan Lake to Lake B&B Association. For the year, Venturini’s property is up 17%, but “our summer was flat,” he said. “Guests are coming but not spending as much money on extra things like spa services and flowers as they have in the past.” However, some association members Up North reported a different story, he said: “Four of my innkeeper friends have told me that they had an all-time, record-breaking season in both occupancy and revenue.”
- Mackinac parks: Attendance at parks and forts that charged an entry fee dropped by 6%, said Greg Hokans, chief of development and marketing for the Michigan State Historic Parks. It administers the 80% of Mackinac Island that is park, forts and shoreline, plus forts and parks in Mackinaw City. “In general, we saw more traffic on the island, but there were fewer people carrying shopping bags,” he said.