Tourism Looks Brighter For 04

September 26, 2003
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LANSING — Cool temperatures, a sluggish economy, wartime nerves and high gas prices have all contributed to lower travel and tourism revenue around the state during the 2003 season. But early indications following Labor Day weekend point to a comeback.

The final numbers will take another couple of weeks to sort out, said Dave Lorenz, managing director of Travel Michigan, the state's official tourism promotion agency.

"We do know that for July 2003, as compared to July 2002, the state's hotel occupancy was down 2 percent," Lorenz said. "Year-to-date, as of the end of July, we're down 3.1 percent" compared to 2002.

Michigan lags behind the national hotel occupancy average — up 2.4 percent for July and down 1.2 percent so far this year — according to Smith Travel Research, an independent firm that tracks lodging trends for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

"But the good news is," Lorenz added, "it looks like August may have done such a great job for us that it may have reversed that trend, and it looks like our occupancy levels significantly increased, although we don't have the real numbers here to make that determination yet."

Joe Lieghio, whose family owns restaurants and about 700 hotel rooms in the popular Mackinaw City area, said business picked up after fighting subsided in Iraq.

"March was by far our worst decrease. That's when the war was happening," Lieghio said. "And as soon as the statue (of Saddam Hussein) went down in Baghdad, literally that day the phone started ringing back."

Still, Lieghio expects a 2 percent to 3 percent decline overall in hotel occupancy for 2003.

Some West Michigan resort areas may have fared slightly better.

Deborah Knudsen, president of the Traverse City Convention & Visitor's Bureau, reported lodging statistics were generally flat this season, "within a percent up or down from last year."

And Peter Fitzsimons, executive director of the Petoskey-Harbor Springs-Boyne Country Visitors' Bureau, offered a similar account. "For the first half of the year, we are even with last year — and last year actually turned out to be our highest revenue year ever."

For example, area golf courses seemed to do well, Fitzsimons said, but long-term rentals, such as condominiums, were down compared to 2002.

Laura Hovat, who owns a Wendy's restaurant and Super 8 motel in Manistee, cited growth at her businesses. "This has been a good season for us — we've had an up summer compared to last year."

Hovat also noted that 2002, when she saw double-digit growth, was a tough act to follow.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore reported increases in both visitor numbers and fees collected through July.

"Visitation was up 3.37 percent," said Paul Purifoy, the park's fee program manager. Fees for the same period were $838,201, compared to $829,691 in 2002, a 1 percent increase.

Looking forward to next year, Steve Yencich, president of the Tourism Industry Coalition of Michigan, is optimistic.

"Certainly we believe that as the economy improves, we'll see tourism outcomes improve as well," said Yencich, who is also president of the Michigan Hotel, Motel & Resort Association. "This has been a protracted recessionary economy, and thankfully the economic signs point to a much brighter future."

Apparently the Lieghio family agrees. It recently acquired the Traverse Bay Woolen Co. building, a Mackinaw City landmark, for $3.2 million.

Plans to develop a mall and indoor water park there are slated for 2005.           

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