By Ian Wendrow
Listen Up, Lansing
LANSING-As news of Wayne County’s financial trouble spreads across Michigan and Detroit continues to pick up the pieces from its historic bankruptcy case, one would be fair in believing that the spirit of travel had fallen in recent years.
Looking at basic economic figures, the future for Michigan’s vast tourism industry looked dire even before the recession or the bankruptcy hit. “Things started to bottom out near the end of [Former Governor Jennifer] Granholm’s term,” said David Lorenz, Manager of Industry Relations and International Marketing for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).
The economic draw-down overall hit Michigan harder than most, since much of the state’s finances derives from manufacturing, specifically cars.
“We weren’t diversified well enough, so under our philosophy under the Granholm administration we really started taking this diversification thing seriously,” said Lorenz.
Part of this diversification included a greater focus on Michigan’s nature: its 3,000 miles of fresh water shoreline, 19,000,000 acres of forest, and 11,000 inland lakes.
Despite the intentional distancing of Michigan’s image from its manufacturing base, the link between Michigan and Detroit is still quite strong.
“Michigan is Detroit in the minds of most people outside the state. So in effect, what’s good for Detroit is good for Michigan,” said Don Holecek, a professor emeritus at Michigan State University. Researching Michigan’s tourism industry since the early 1970s, Holecek firmly believes that urban tourism makes up the greater portion of Michigan’s travel profits overall.
In a series of tracking surveys conducted by Holecek, he found that over 50% of Michigan pleasure trips went to the lower third of the state, where the population density for the state is highest.
The surveys also found that visiting friends and relatives was the main purpose of these trips, making up over 40% of all trips. The next 15% traveled for entertainment purposes including gambling, going to festivals, and sports. Less than 10% of respondents indicated that they traveled for outdoor or nature purposes.
“The lower half of the state does well throughout the year. Nature travel is at its strongest during the summer, but for places like Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Detroit, the emphasis on urban travel helps them out a lot,” Holecek says.
Increased attention has been especially prudent for the Greater Lansing area, which has increased its spending on local tourism in recent years. Part of this investment boost stems from the bipartisan nature of Michigan’s tourism.
“Granholm got the ball rolling, Snyder continued it…Both parties recognize that tourism helps out everyone, so they’ll work together on legislation meant to improve that,” says Holecek.
Naturally, Detroit’s filing for bankruptcy in June of 2013 put a significant damper on the industry. Yet for Holecek, the bankruptcy was not a death knell for Michigan travel.
“In a lot of ways, coming out of the bankruptcy embellished the image of Michigan because people saw that and said ‘we did it right.’” said Holecek. He isn’t alone in sharing this view either.
“The perceptions about it [Detroit] emerging from bankruptcy is going to ultimately be positive. The bankruptcy settlement allowed a breakthrough, its now on the road to recover and advance in tourism and a lot of other areas,” said Annette Rummel. As CEO of the Great Lakes Bay Region Convention & Visitor Bureau, Rummel has noticed a marked increase in traffic to her area since the end of the bankruptcy.
“We’ve actually picked up a number of out of state and international visitors, thanks in part to the Pure Michigan initiative and partly through the success story of Michigan,” she adds.
Pure Michigan’s successes were also reiterated by Holecek and especially by Lorenz.
“Not only did it gain attention and awareness for Michigan nationally, it gave us kind of a rallying point for residents. So residents started to really buy in to the Pure Michigan thing as a brand and more as a point of pride,” said Lorenz.
Kelsey Vandermeer, a junior at Michigan State University studying criminal justice and international relations is one such resident.
Hailing from Grand Rapids, Kelsey’s family owns a cabin up in Baldwin, Mich., on the coast of Big Star Lake. For her, the lake is a calm retreat to get away from big crowds and noisy cities.
More importantly, it’s a way for her to spend time with dense woods and sunny lakes, aspects of Michigan she views as important and is happy to see displayed in Pure Michigan ads she said during interviews.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are Michigan residents who are more drawn to the gritty, urban centers of the state. James Son, an associate banker at Quicken Loans who lives in Detroit’s Madison Heights, finds immense potential in the city.
“What drew me to Detroit was it was an opportunity in that it’s a city on the rebound, and to be a part of a lot of cool change at a big city level where you can still live relatively cheap compared to other American cities while still having a big city experience,” he said.
Though he believes the bankruptcy reinforced negative stereotypes about the city, Son sees the turnaround as evidence of Detroit’s spirit and as an attractive destination for visitors in and out of the state.
“Detroit’s got sports, it has the DIA, and it has a history, that’s going to bring people here no matter what,” he said.