ESCANABA - With snow beginning to fall in parts of the Upper Peninsula businesses are preparing for the winter tourism season, but experts are unsure of how the weather will affect businesses this year.
"It's all going to be dependent upon the weather," said Tom Nemacheck, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association.
According to Nemacheck, the top three draws for winter tourists in the U.P. are snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing. While little snow has fallen locally, some areas in the western U.P. have already seen enough snow to open ski hills and trails.
"Some of those ski hills get 3,000 people together on one hill," said Nemacheck.
Without snow U.P. tourism suffers, but sometimes snow can cause problems of its own for U.P. hotels and other businesses that rely on tourism.
"The amount of snow here and the amount of snow other places make a difference" said Nemacheck.
Because the majority of tourists come from within eight to 10 hours away from the Upper Peninsula, heavy, quality snows in Wisconsin, Lower Michigan and Minnesota can prompt travelers to stay closer to home when enjoying the winter weather - especially if snows in the U.P. lead to dangerous driving conditions or fall on a weekend.
"If there's a snowstorm on the weekend that hurts us because they (tourists) don't want to drive through it," said Nemacheck, noting that hotel reservations drop in the U.P. when storms are predicted on weekends.
"In an ideal world we'd get our snow Monday through Thursday and not get snow on the weekend," he added.
While snow is important for winter tourism throughout the U.P., in Delta County cold temperatures are particularly important to draw for ice fishermen.
"We need the bays to freeze so we can get the ice fishermen," said Steve Masters, executive director for the Bays de Noc Convention and Visitors Bureau.
According to Masters, ice fishing is part of what makes Delta County a destination location for winter tourists. Without the ice, fewer tourists come to the area and in turn spend less in local businesses.
"Winter's a soft season just because it's so weather dependent, and it hasn't been productive for us because it's freezing later and later," he said.
Even if weather is warmer or snowier than tourists would like, local events help to buffer the winter weather by drawing in visitors with an experience that can only be enjoyed for a limited time.
"People are coming up (to the U.P.) for the event. They're going to come up no matter what," said Nemacheck.
The winter weather also gives rise to a variety of winter themed events. This year in January, Escanaba will be hosting the Jig It! Ice Fishing Extravaganza to benefit Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Bay Area and the Mites to Men Pond Hockey Tournament. Other events being held across the U.P. can be viewed on the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association website at www.uptravel.com.
No matter what the winter season brings, fewer tourists are expected this winter than during the summer and winter months. On average, only 15 percent of U.P. tourism takes place during the winter season and tourists take shorter vacations during this period. In addition, tourists may opt to travel to warmer climates or travel shorter distances than they would during the summer months.
"You're dealing with a much smaller market for winter visitors," said Nemacheck.