Northern Michigan counties brace for a summer less traveled

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Brandon Chew/Spartan Newsroom

The view of Lake Charlevoix from atop of Avalanche Mountain often attracts tourists to the Boyne City, Michigan, area.

Tourism in northern Michigan is being forced to readjust how business will be conducted as many vacationers will be staying away in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.

David Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, said that the region is a favorite for travelers from across the country.  

From Chicago alone, he said: “Those people are going to want to get out of the big cities as soon as they can. They’re going to want to get to smaller towns, breath in that fresh air and see the environment that Michigan has to offer.” 

Many of those trips are being affected as the state’s “stay at home” order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was extended through May 28. On May 18, Whitmer announced a phased-in reopening of the region could begin on on Friday, May 22.

“Right now it’s important that we stay home and keep everybody safe,” said Lorenz. “We’re hopeful that the need for the stay-at-home order situation will go away rather rapidly but the reality is we’ve got a little longer before we’re going to be able to travel.” 

The COVID-19 precautions also are expected to affect the type of tourists who’ll be coming to northern Michigan, said Amanda Wilkin, executive director of Visit Charlevoix, the tourism promotional agency in that county.

“Normally this time of year we might ask people to plan their vacation around a calendar event,” said Wilkin. “Now we’re talking about all of the recreational opportunities that people can do social distancing with: hiking, biking, paddling, etc. Things that people can still do while being six feet away from other people.”

Picnic tables remain under wraps at the park pavilion in Whiting County Park near Boyne City, Michigan.

Charlevoix County economy is reliant on tourism, as the county has the third-highest percentage of jobs dependent on tourism in Michigan, according to a 2019 analysis from Tourism Economics.  That study also found that over 12,900 jobs in Charlevoix and Grand Traverse counties are tourism-related.

“Sixty percent of the jobs in Charlevoix County are dependent on tourism,” Wilkin said. “It’s not like that everywhere in the state.”  In other areas, tourism accounts for 4 percent to 10 percent of jobs, she noted.

“We really depend on tourists coming and spending their money in Charlevoix County,” Wilkin said. 

On the other side of Lake Charlevoix, officials in Boyne City are making adjustments to adhere to the COVID-19 precautions.

A sign warns hikers on Avalanche Mountain near Boyne City to observe social distancing guidelines in Michigan with the onslaught of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Kelsie King-Duff, executive director of the Boyne City Main Street program, said the agency, which has helped sponsor a variety of events to help local businesses, is working on efforts to help attract business this summer.

“We’ve also talked with small businesses on different training on things like running an online store or simply continuing to build relationships with local customers during this time,” King-Duff said.

Hikers upstate get this view of Lake Charlevoix from atop Avalanche Mountain near Boyne City, Michigan.

Brandon Chew / Spartan Newsroom

The list of summer events that have been canceled or postponed across northern Michigan took a major hit with the cancellation of the Cherry Festival in Traverse City, which annually attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to the area during the week of the fourth of July.

Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism, said the outlook for summer is grim.

“We know even if we get any business that it’s going to be a far cry from what we’ve had in the past,” he said.

“Do we have an opportunity potentially to get into one of the phases that’s more amenable to leisure travel?” Tkach said. “There’s a possibility. Is it going to look the same? Not a chance.”

Whiting Beach near Boynce City is among waterfront areas in Michigan that were closed by the governor’s executive orders. The eased restrictions beginning May 22 do not call for the opening of overnight lodging, campgrounds and rental properties in the state’s northern regions.

Tkach said he has urged small business owners to prepare for the potential losses.

“You’ve got to really control expenses, you’ve got to look for alternative funding; grants, support from the government in the form of low-interest loans, insurances, etc.,” said Tkach. “People can’t travel, so leisure travel is completely shut down. It’s not like you’ve lost one category or the other, you’ve lost everything.”

In Traverse City, some small business owners can look for help from a nonprofit charity in the area.

“The Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation started an emergency fund for a lot of people who are finding themselves in difficult situations,” said Tkach. “Lucky for us there’s a really supportive philanthropic effort here, but I tell you, even with all that gracious donations and contributions, if you’re out of work, you’re out of work.

“We’re all just doing our best to weather the storm and get back to business as usual whenever that might come.” 

King-Duff predicted local residents would step up to fill the void for small businesses.

“I think one thing for Boyne City that we’re really fortunate for is that a lot of the people that live locally really do see and understand the value of shopping locally,” said King-Duff. “When you go into a small store, more of that money is being circulated in the local economy.”

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