How COVID-19 became a billboard for Upper Peninsula tourism

The tourism economy that is so vital to the economic health of the U.P….

How COVID-19 became a billboard for Upper Peninsula tourism 1
How COVID-19 became a billboard for Upper Peninsula tourism 2

Dan B. Jones
 |  Special to The Detroit News

Houghton and Hancock are the gateway to Copper Country in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.

The rural peninsula in the northwestern Upper Peninsula is bucolic, full of rambling hills, thick forests and unparalleled vistas of Lake Superior.

As COVID-19 restrictions squeezed more populated areas of the Great Lakes state last year in the early months of the pandemic, the Upper Peninsula became an outlet for holed-up recreators and work-from-home employees across the Midwest looking for a break.

The tourism economy that is so vital to the economic health of the U.P. and the Keweenaw Peninsula is a bit complicated during a socially distanced global pandemic.

But it was booming last year, even if COVID-19 restrictions like takeout-only or limited-capacity restaurants and social distancing muted the full financial benefits of a rush of visitors. And state and local officials say they are bracing for another surge to begin in May. 

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore between Munising and Grand Marais on the shores of Lake Superior recorded a record 1.21 million visitors last summer, dwarfing the previous year’s record count of 858,000.

The park uses vehicle counters embedded in roads, online registration from campers and backpackers and sales from authorized concessionaires such as Pictured Rocks Cruises to capture accurate visitor information, said Susan Reece, chief of Interpretation and Education for the park.

Jeff Ratcliffe is the executive director of the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance. He said it was clear early in the pandemic that people were flocking to the U.P. during Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order.

“Seasonal residents came back early, and that was evident by the traffic in local grocery stores,” Ratcliffe said. Vacation rentals, which he said have been steadily growing in the area, filled up, as did campgrounds.

Pictured Rocks’ visitor surge is indicative of what happened in all 15 counties in the U.P., said Tom Nemacheck, executive director of the Iron Mountain-based Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreation Association, which promotes tourism in the U.P.

His agency experienced a 100% increase in inquiries early in 2020 from people wanting to visit the U.P.

By May, despite a travel ban imposed by Whitmer that was later ruled unconstitutional, businesses were seeing parking lots full of vehicles with out-of-state license plates, he said.

“One of the most remarkable things from a marketing standpoint is the amount of people who are coming here who have never been here,” Nemacheck said. “This is not anecdotal because we saw enough of it. …We’re not a high-end destination … but we’ve never seen so many BMWs and Mercedes at any one time.”

‘A billboard for U.P.’

Nemacheck said when COVID-19 hit Michigan in March, he stopped virtually all of the tourism group’s marketing efforts.

“Somewhere around late April, the coronavirus map was constantly being shown in the news and we started to realize, ‘This was going to be a billboard for the U.P.'”

He said the U.P. saw waves of visitors and “no ad I could have run could have done that.”

As the sun set at Roy’s Pasties & Bakery in Houghton in mid-February, a small group of snowmobilers ripped past the bakery on the shores of the Keweenaw Waterway that separates Copper Harbor, Calumet and a handful of villages from the mainland. 

Trisia Narhi, Roy’s wife and business partner, is thankful for her community and the region’s tourists who kept the bakery afloat.

“We have great baseline business,” said Narhi, as Roy worked to her right, pulling hot pasties from the oven. “Our community supports us, but the tourism is what makes our shop viable 12 months of the year.”

Narhi is grateful that even when indoor dining was shut down, tourists and locals alike kept showing up.

“We are well suited for takeout. We do have a great patio, so people kept coming here.”

Indeed, enough people came that Roy’s turned a larger profit in 2020 than the previous year.

But the surge in visitors caused challenges, especially for the restaurant industry besieged twice in 12 months by state-imposed shutdowns or reduced-capacity orders.

“Certainly, restaurants were impacted,” Ratcliffe said. “Some of the smaller operations that did breakfast and lunch didn’t do as well because breakfast doesn’t fare well for takeout. Others had a really good year. If you were able to adapt, you did well.”

Kathy Reynolds, CEO of the Greater Munising Bay Partnership/Alger County Chamber, said restaurants did a good business despite limited sit-down capacity. She added at least one new restaurant is expected to open this year.

Restaurants and hotels struggled to find enough employees, both Reynolds and Nemacheck said. 

“We had nights where we could have sold many, many more overnights if they had (hotel) rooms made up,” Nemacheck said. “It’s very frustrating to be turning down 30 to 40 rooms at a good-sized property because they couldn’t get rooms made up.”

And there were businesses that were hit hard because of social distancing, boat tours and museums among them. Lodging on Isle Royale National Park, reachable only by ferry across Lake Superior, was closed all year.

Next door to Roys’ stands a formerly abandoned train depot. The Narhis purchased the building in 2018 and began construction on what would become the Copper Range Depot. Inside the historic red brick structure, the new dining room sits completed but empty.

“I cannot make the 25% (state-mandated maximum restaurant) occupancy viable,” Trisia Narhi said in February. “I carry this building right now for $6,000 a month. I’d need to be at least 75% occupancy to make opening viable.”

Michigan allowed restaurants to increase capacity from 25% to 50% starting March 5 through April 19.

Nemacheck said the U.P. has not experienced the rash of permanent restaurant closures seen in Lower Michigan. While some restaurants decided not to open during shutdowns, or closed this winter while service was limited to takeout, “I can’t even think of one right now, where they said they lost the business, they’re not going to open.”

The timing of the pandemic might have helped, Barnett said. About 90% of tourism spending up north occurs in the summer and fall.

The early spring is the slowest season in the U.P. and as a result, fewer businesses were affected by Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders last spring, he said.

But Copper Country has not been immune to the health crisis, although the U.P. saw cases spike in the fall, much later than Lower Michigan. Houghton County, heavily populated by U.P. standards with about 36,000 residents, has seen 2,160 cases and 32 deaths from COVID-19, according to the state health department. Keweenaw County, easily Michigan’s least-populated county with about 2,100 year-round residents, has had 117 cases and one death, state records show. 

‘Grateful to be open’

Lonie Glieberman, president of the Mount Bohemia ski resort in Mohawk, said he’s thankful for the resilience of his customers and their willingness to keep riding the lifts throughout the winter months of the pandemic.  

The no-frills ski hill of about 1,000 feet situated on the shores of Lac La Belle in Keweenaw County attracts skiers and riders drawn to the high-quality snow, challenging terrain and distinctly small-town Michigan vibe. The economy in Michigan’s smallest county is 70% reliant on tourism.

Glieberman, double-masked and ski-boot clad stood in the single-digit temperatures, recently looked over at a handful of revelers in the limited-capacity hot tub.

Despite seeing food and beverage revenues being down by 80%, he said he holds no animosity toward the state’s actions.

“The ski industry worked alongside the state of Michigan to find a safe way to open. I am grateful to be open,” he said. “The fact that we’re allowed to be opened and allowed to have a lot of skiers here … look, I was a C+ student in high school science. I’m looking at what the experts say to get through this. The Harvard-trained scientists know more than I do and they say, ‘Get vaccinated’ so I get vaccinated.”

U.P. now on map

Barnett said there were many visitors, not just from the traditional markets — including the Lower Peninsula, which typically accounts for 50% to 60% of the U.P.’s visitors, as well as Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Green Bay and Chicago — but also from the West Coast and Texas among other states — “places we don’t typically see” visitors from, Barnett said.

“The Keweenaw Peninsula is closer to Wisconsin than Lansing. It’s 10 hours from Detroit, but you can be in Wisconsin in a couple of hours,” Barnett said. Or Minneapolis or Milwaukee in about four hours, or Chicago in seven or eight. And there is a direct flight by United Airlines between Houghton and Chicago.

“We count ourselves lucky,” Barnett said. “For us, getting a summer in, somewhat abbreviated and not as early a start as we typically might, carried us into the winter,” he said.

Kathy Reynolds, CEO of the Greater Munising Bay Partnership/Alger County Chamber, said she thinks “the whole U.P. did well.”

“I would hear it from the west end, from the Keweenaw, from the east end, because most of all of us offer the same type of thing, a chance to be outside, to enjoy the beauty of Michigan,” Reynolds said.

“People were not going to cities, not going to Disney and not flying,” she noted, adding “when everything else is closed, the outdoors is open.”

Traffic on the Mackinac Bridge last year was down from 2019 by about 11% or about 475,000 vehicles. However, the majority of the traffic declines occurred outside peak tourism season of June to October, when there were about 124,000 fewer trips across the bridge. And traffic increased over 2019 in September and October.

Visitor traffic at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie was down about 9%, with about 33,000 fewer visitors than 2019’s total of 392,995, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, although the visitor’s center that includes exhibits and interactive displays was shuttered all year.

Reynolds said she believes much of the visitor traffic came through the western end of the U.P. “I think we had a lot more folks come through Wisconsin, come from cities to the west like Milwaukee, and to the south like Chicago.”

Ron Olson, chief of Parks and Recreations for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, agrees. He said average attendance and lodging at state parks and state forest campgrounds was up 25%, although Michigan’s state parks didn’t open to camping until June 22.

“Without a doubt, it was one of the best years,” Olson said of park and state forest campground usage in the U.P. “We have staff who have worked in the parks for years, and they say it was one of the best years. We had waiting lines to get into Tahquamenon Falls. We don’t have exact car counts, but we have formulas to calculate usership. It was a very strong year in the U.P., but also very strong in the Lower Peninsula as well.

“It was one of the first times we had waiting lines at Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains,” Olson said, referring to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park near Ontonagan, west of the Keweenaw Peninsula that includes the Lake of the Clouds. “It overtaxed the parking lot.”  

In a normal year there are a disproportionate number of visitors to state parks in the U.P. from Wisconsin and Minnesota as well as Canada, Olson noted, although there were fewer Canadian visitors because of border closures.

Olson added there were more rescues of hikers and campers than park staff can ever remember having to make.

“I think there were a lot of new users and some folks were not prepared to go hiking in the backcountry,” he said.

A repeat summer?

Barnett said the winter tourism season has been “pretty good,” although it got off to a slow start at least in part because there wasn’t substantial snow until February. Spiking COVID-19 numbers across the state in November and through the holidays also might have played a role. 

Some businesses that traditionally are open through the snowy months opted to close this winter, hoping to be assured another strong summer, he said.

That’s expected to be the case.

“I can tell you what we know now,” said Nemacheck, who has been with the tourism association for 26 years. “In normal years during the winter … about 10% of visits to our site are people looking at warm-weather attractions. 

“This winter it completely flipped. I told my board of directors, ‘We flipped 80-20’ – 80% of inquiries are people making plans for this summer.

“For someone who’s been doing this so long, I’m stunned.”

Barnett agrees.

“People’s desire to get outdoors and recreate is not going away anytime soon,” he said. “They’ll continue to pursue outdoor activities either in the U.P. or elsewhere.”

He said many people visited the U.P. for the first time and many are expected to make a return visit, especially since concerns remain over flying commercially or traveling outside the U.S. Or simply share their experience with friends and family and pass the word about the beauty of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

State park reservations are up by nearly a third, Olson said.

“From Nov. 1 when you can start making reservations to right now, we’ve seen a 30% increase from the same period in 2019,” Olson said Thursday. “Had COVID not occurred we were expecting a strong year. It’s been evolving for about five years, but now we see this surge coming.”

Nemacheck agrees.

“It’s going to be like last summer, if not more,” he said. “I’m hoping the restaurants can stay open, that would take a lot of pressure off visitors. Hopefully, the man-made attractions will do better.”

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