Marinette Travel Center records daily visits

John Hollo at the Marinette Travel Center said fewer visitors stopped in this May compared with a year ago, but the number of visitors fluctuates by the day.

EagleHerald Staff Writer

MARINETTE—Tourists boosted visitor spending last year in Marinette County, but whether the double-digit lift in tourism revenue the Wisconsin Department of Tourism reported will continue this year with higher gas prices in effect remains to be seen.

“I’d like to see gas prices lower,” said John Hollo, who works at the Marinette Travel Center, where visits in May were lower this year than last.

The center tallied about 206 signatures on its guest book in May, compared with 389 in May 2021 and 439 in May 2019. The visitor center was closed in May 2020 due to the COVID-19 shutdown. To determine the total number of Marinette County visitors, the signature counts typically are multiplied by 2.9, using a state formula, because most visitors are accompanied by others, Hollo said.

Marinette County rang up $167 million in visitor spending in 2021, up 18% from $141.5 million in 2020, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. When labor income and state and local taxes are included, the total revenue from tourism in Marinette County rose to $232 million in 2021, up 14% from $203 million the prior year, the tourism department said.

For the state as a whole, the tourism department reported visitor spending rose 31% to $12.9 billion in 2021 from $9.8 billion in 2020, when the coronavirus kept many people from traveling. Wisconsin’s total tourism business sales of $20.93 billion in 2021 were up 21% from $17.27 billion in 2020, the tourism department said. People traveling at least 50 miles from their residences are considered tourists in Wisconsin.

Visits to Marinette County from foreigners still haven’t bounced back from pre-COVID days, Hollo said. “I bet in the last three years, we haven’t had 20 foreigners. We used to get Germans coming out of our ears,” he said. Visits from tour buses also stopped during COVID, he said, but they’re starting to return this year.

The Marinette Travel Center is visited by “quite a few locals,” Hollo said. The peak months for visitors are the summer months of July and August and the fall months of September and October, when the leaves are colorful. Prior to COVID, 1,187 people visited the center in July 2018, compared with 931 in July 2019.

To encourage tourists to return this year, some businesses are holding prices steady, despite inflation. The Edgewood Motel in Peshtigo is keeping its room rates the same as last year, said Joanne Ventimiglia, owner with her husband Chris. The nightly rate for a double room is $69.95 plus tax, she said.

“We had talked about raising our rates just because all of my supplies are going up, but that might deter people from coming just because they have to fill their tanks as well,” she said. “We‘re going to keep our prices where they are normally, and hopefully people won’t mind spending a little extra to come and see us.”

The walleye tournament held June 4 and 5 in Marinette brought fishermen to the Tarragon Motel, which offers a fish stand for cleaning fish, said Shannon Muldowney, manager. Demand from large companies, such as Fincantieri Marinette Marine and Waupaca Foundry, help to fill the Tarragon during the workweek. “Those hiring agencies, they know to call us,” she said. The nightly rate is $72 during week and $78 per weekend, and the weekly rate is $300.

During peak periods of COVID-19, “It slowed way, way down, but it’s picking back up,” Muldowney said. “I don’t really have to do anything as far as marketing because we’re full,” she said.

At the Edgewood Motel, a steady clientele visit to fish in the area. Ventimiglia’s husband is a fishing guide known as “Captain Chris.”

The Ventimiglias purchased the motel in August when the opportunity presented itself. Its previous owner also was a guide.

The motel was booked for most of the past several weekends, Ventimiglia said. “We’re trying to maintain its integrity and keep it clean and quiet and a place for weary travelers to rest their heads,” she said.

At the Menominee Welcome Center on the Michigan side of U.S. 41 just over the Interstate Bridge, Manager Vivian Haight said it’s too soon to tell how this year’s tourism season will be. “With gas prices, people might stay local,” Haight said.

So far, people haven’t let the higher prices derail their vacation plans. “I haven’t heard many complaints about gas prices from people pulling campers or doing the Circle Tour of Lake Michigan. They are going to go whether gas prices are high or not,” Haight said.

While COVID numbers might be down from the past two years, many people still are reluctant to venture overseas or even to get on a plane.

“I’m still seeing people in here wearing masks,” Haight said. “People who do travel will do it as safely as they can or else they will stay close to home.” But the number of visitor center guests might not give an accurate picture because many people today rely on digital information instead of stopping in for printed literature and maps.

While actual tourism numbers weren’t immediately available for Michigan, Haight said, “In the Upper Peninsula, it’s jumped from pre-COVID at Pictured Rocks in Munising to Marquette and the Keweenaw Peninsula. Mackinaw City did well. They had people coming in and spending money last year,” she said.

“They’re preparing for a lot of tourism. They don’t think it’s going to slow down,” she said.

In Oconto County, where Ventimiglia owns Fish Inn on the Bay, 80% of guests are return customers, Ventimiglia said. The boat launch on the property is a draw, along with spacious quarters. “That’s why people come back. Guys like to go out fishing. It’s very convenient,” she said.