LA CROSSE, Wisconsin (WXOW) – The 7 Rivers Alliance researched tourism and economic metrics in a region and found that tourism rates fell sharply in 2020, but outdoor activity rates skyrocketed.
The 7 Rivers Alliance is a regional economic development organization serving eight counties in western Wisconsin, two counties in northeast Iowa, and three in southeast Minnesota.
Chris Hardie, CEO of 7 Rivers Alliance, stated that he is working with economic development and tourism partners across the region to help grow their economies.
“Tourism is a very important economic development tool in our region and has a significant economic impact,” said Hardie. “In 2019, before pandemic tourism spending in our Wisconsin area was just under $ 600 million, Iowa and Minnesota had an estimated economic impact of $ 812 million.”
Hardie stated that this supports about 9,000 jobs in our area. La Crosse County’s sales alone were nearly $ 458 million. While they don’t have specific 2020 numbers yet, Hardie said the differences are likely huge.
“Tourism is really based on the fact that the more people there to stay, the more income is generated because they not only stay, but also eat, drink and buy,” said Hardie.
While they saw many small businesses and the hospitality industry struggling, they saw an increase in outdoor activities.
“What we saw is an exceptional year for camping, fish sales, license sales and outdoor recreation that was exceptionally high last year and of course this was a place where people felt they could still do some things sure, “said Hardie. “That was the good and the bad when it came to 2020.”
It was a tough year for places like Smith’s Bike Shop as outdoor recreation increased.
“People started buying bikes and they bought a lot of bikes and that pretty much wiped out inventory across the country,” said Erik Pueschner, owner of Smith’s Bike Shop
He said that the inventory was replenishing very slowly and because of this, the number of repairs has increased.
“There is currently a fairly serious shortage of bicycles and bicycle parts in stock across the board. So the lead time for procuring bicycles is quite long,” said Pueschner.
He explained that it could take a few weeks to a year before I received a bike. Certain types of bicycles have sold more than in the past, said Pueschner. Mountain bike sales have increased with Gateway Trails on Grandad’s Bluff.
“I do not think that this bicycle movement will slow down. We do not have a large inventory at the moment. We have ordered a lot of bicycles and more bicycles come more often,” said Pueschner.
He said they expect more bikes to come this summer so more people can enjoy the outdoors. While outdoor activities continue to grow, Chris Hardie expects tourism to rise again.
“There is a pent-up demand for tourism. There will be a lot of people wanting to do some things that had to put their travel plans on hold last year because of the pandemic,” Hardie said.
He said the latest Wisconsin Department of Tourism survey found that 87% of people have travel plans within the next six months. With that said, Hardie said that they also discovered that most people plan to drive to their destinations rather than fly. 50% of people also said it was important that the place they travel to follow the COVID protocol.
“It is important that our tourists feel safe so that they can spend money in our region,” said Hardie.
He stated that tourism is vital for many small businesses and cities to survive.
“So many of our small businesses rely on the outside spending. People come to our region, they stay overnight, they go to bars, visit local attractions, visit wineries and breweries. All of this is important because that money when it’s in spent in our community, it stays in our community by supporting the local small businesses that belong to the people in our community, “Hardie said.
He said it was important that the dollars be circulated within the community. The other thing about tourism that Hardie said is often overlooked in economic development is that it isn’t as dependent on infrastructure.
As for last year’s rebound, Hardie said we don’t really know how long it will be to get back to where many businesses and tourism numbers were before the pandemic.
“There have been some companies that have basically been completely closed for almost a year and will they go back to where they were before? Maybe their business model changed slightly because the pandemic changed the way they were have to get closer to the store, “said Hardie.
He said he believes that as the summer goes on, we will see greater effects in the summer as the vaccination rates and many people are more comfortable taking vacation.
“Companies have made it this far and we definitely need a good year to see that they can get to the other end,” said Hardie.