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Virus, lack of snow impact tourism

DNR photo An ice angler enjoys an afternoon on an Upper Peninsula lake.

ESCANABA — The winter tourism landscape looks different this year, both figuratively and literally. Delta County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vickie Micheau points out that COVID-19 restrictions, as well as the late arrival of snow and ice have caused a decline in tourism.

“The lack of snow has put many outside activities behind schedule in the Escanaba area,” said Tammy Thiel, a director on the Visit Escanaba Board of Directors and owner of Bay View Motel. She added, however, that it is better for ice fishing to not have snow yet. “You don’t want the snow till the ice is thick,” she said.

Thiel agreed COVID-19 restrictions have impacted winter tourism in the extreme, reducing snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, and all-weather activities. “It has effected it severely with nothing open for sit-down service in restaurants, or most closed even for take out. Also, festivals being cancelled, etc… There is no incentive to come the UP if you are restricted from enjoying activities outdoors,” she said.

“We look forward to the time when all Chamber member businesses can operate at full capacity and offer the level of quality products and services guests expect while vacationing in our waterfront community,” Micheau said.

Executive Director of Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreation Association Tom Nemacheck said snow was not an issue in the western UP, noting 16 inches in December — and more in the Lake Superior region, where there remains a snow depth of 10-15 inches. While the lower areas have only 7-8 inches of snow, Nemacheck said it’s enough to recreate in.

Nemacheck said while outdoor pursuits have not changed, what has changed is the number of people participating in winter recreation. “Indoor spaces are now dictating our outdoor activity because of COVID restrictions,” he said. By way of example, he said if a ski area sells 1,000 lift tickets in a normal season, they may be restricted to 400 tickets this winter, as they have to be careful of how many people might be in the chalet at any moment.

Snowmobiling may seem like an activity that could weather COVID-19 restrictions, as advances in manufacturing since the ’90s has enabled machines to dependably travel much farther than they used to. Nemacheck said snowmobilers’ travel circlers are shrinking again, this time to avoid getting too far from resources like places to with food and bathrooms. “Gas stations are sometimes overrun, as at any given moment 20 sleds pull up, it gets complicated,” he said.

Restaurants continue to struggle, as operating at half-capacity in the summer will not compensate for the current restrictions for many restaurant owners. “It’s not going to work from a standpoint of generating normal income. For restaurants, that end of the business profits are shot,” he said. While many restaurants in the U.P. are offering carry out and curbside, the “prognosis for the winter is we’re just going to hang on. It’s going to be what it is. It’s going to be substantially less than normal, but it may make a difference for some businesses,” Nemacheck hoped. Of the restaurants that survive, he predicted, “they are going to hemorrhage dollars from what we can tell, all winter long.”

There is general agreement that for restaurants, hope lies in lifting the ban on indoor dining. “If we could get some of the restrictions relaxed so that people can do more in a safe and responsible manner things could look up,” Thiel said.

The lodging industry, on the other hand, will be able to make it through the winter due to record-breaking summer and fall, Nemacheck said. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore broke its all-time record in the fall and close to that in the summer. Boat tours, however — the number one attraction of the site — could not load tourists at full capacity. While they took out as many tours as possible, the business struggled, limited as it is to daylight hours.

One difficulty the tourism industry won’t have to deal during the winter that it contended with this summer is lack of housekeeping help. He explained that even during the record-breaking summer and fall seasons, many lodges were unable to find help as less people sought work, due to receiving unemployment benefits enhanced by COVID-19 relief. “Bottom line to the business was that they couldn’t get people to work, and so couldn’t rent the rooms in the summer,” he said. While lodges don’t have that problem now, the winter season is being limited due to the restrictions on indoor crowds, including indoor dining, which at present continue. He added many businesses used the quiet winter season as an opportunity to renovate their establishments, hopeful for a prosperous new year.

The campgrounds had a profitable summer, and expect summer of 2021 to be just as busy. “Campgrounds were 100% full all summer. Sold out day after day,” Nemacheck said, adding that while not as many camp during the winter, he expects more winter campers this year than usual.

Watching for trends, the UP Travel and Recreation Association said the booming housing market this past summer will have an affect on future tourism. He credits this partially to lower interest rates and partially to people’s desire to “have more space.” While fewer visitors will patronize lodging establishments as a result of purchasing homes they can go to when vacationing in the U.P., they will bring commerce to local businesses.

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