As nature-based vacations grew in popularity, Marathon County saw tourism spending increase 21% in 2021 compared to the previous year.
According to Wisconsin Department of Tourism economic impact data, the county brought in a total of $403 million in tourism dollars, including funds from sales, jobs, income, products and services, and taxes.
Portage and Wood counties saw similar increases in tourism spending, with $217 million in tourism dollars in Portage County and $197 million in Wood County in 2021, according to the Department of Tourism.
The Ministry of Tourism has compiled data from surveys, employment data, accommodation performance data, flight data and credit card information. Overall, Wisconsin reported nearly $21 billion in total revenue in 2021 compared to $17 billion in 2020.
Tim White, executive director of the Wausau and Central Wisconsin Convention and Visitors Bureau, said outdoor recreation has always been a reason people visit Marathon County. There is Granite Peak, Rib Mountain State Park, plenty of water for fishing, boating and swimming and a variety of bike trails.
“Even during the pandemic, that’s been a strong tourism genre,” White said.
White said Wausau acts as a “base camp” for central Wisconsin because it’s close to the parks but is still a city. It has hotels and Airbnbs to choose from, along with a variety of restaurants.
For those not looking for an outdoor recreation, Wausau offers several art museums, the Grand Theater and many community events.
Wausau offers an affordable city vacation and isn’t as expensive as the Twin Cities or Chicago, White said.
After many vacations in 2020 were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people traveled more last year because it felt safer as cases of the virus dropped in the spring and summer of 2021.
“People were dying to get out,” White said. “[People wanted]to make plans, and they didn’t want to change them.”
Travelers typically plan ahead by arranging their trips about five months in advance, White said. That meant people were more confident their vacations wouldn’t be canceled while they searched for new travel destinations.
Marathon County tourists most often come from Milwaukee and Madison, but also from the Twin Cities, Green Bay and Chicago, White said.
In the coming seasons, Marathon County is hoping for a further increase in nature-based tourism. The Convention and Visitors Bureau markets city dwellers and tries to show what they have to offer.
White said he wants people to start thinking of the Marathon County area as “up north.”
“I think people have fallen in love with outdoor activities again,” White said. “We’ve seen (Outdoor rec) continue to grow at a steady pace.”
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Contact Emalyn Muzzy at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @EmalynMuzzy.