2007-08-30 / Front Page

Out-of-state Travel Boosts Local Tourism This Year

High Gas Prices Not as Harmful as Expected
By Sean Ely Mackinac Island Town Crier

Tourism is up this year, Mackinac Island business owners say, and whether the increase is just a few percentage points or a leap, they agree that more people are visiting the Straits of Mackinac this year than have for the past four years.

Surprisingly, many of those visitors are from out of state, suggesting that high gasoline prices may not have deterred long-range travel this summer as much as some travel experts had predicted.

"If it wasn't for the out-of-state people, we would be down the tubes right now," said Tom Pfeiffelmann, general manager of Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry. "Our parking lots are made up of more than half of out-of-state cars . . . as far away as Alaska. High gas prices don't affect people all that much; it is a media myth and has nothing to do with traveling."

Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry owner Bill Shepler agrees, predicting that travelers might be affected if gas prices were to rise to $5 a gallon or more, but a trip that costs $100 more than it used to might only deter 1% or 2%.

Michigan's struggling economy, and its resulting discounted travel options, many of the Mackinac Island business operators believe, may be why a larger number of non- Michigan residents are attracted here. Advertising strategy and nearperfect weather are other factors contributing to a good season, they say.

Bill Chambers, president of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, believes that a lot of this season's success has to do with the weather. Visitors from Central Illinois and Indiana, riding a better economy, head to Michigan to escape the heat.

Promotion is the key to getting them to Mackinac, said Bob Benser, president of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau.

"Our industry is already here and does not have to be built, it just simply needs to be promoted," he said. "It is a great product, and we just need to maintain the levels we are at now and grow."

Mackinac Island, he added, is one of the world's special places. It's up to the state of Michigan to get behind places like this and promote tourism, he said, because there are plenty of travelers out there.

He especially liked this year's Pure Michigan advertising campaigns depicting Michigan as a place of true beauty, and noted that Mackinac Island 's view on Lake Huron was rated fourth among lakeside destination by the Internet travel site, TripAdvisor.

"A study showed that for every dollar that the state invests in advertising Michigan, outside of the actual state, $3.40 is generated back in additional state tax revenues," Mr. Benser said. "This is an immediate return on investment for the state of Michigan."

The Tourism Bureau, he said, continues to reach out for positive media coverage with television shows like the "CBS Early Show," "Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe," and the Weather Channel.

Island House President Todd Callewaert attributes some of this year's travel success to package deals that entice visitors with a package price for carriage tours, Fort Mackinac passes, boat tickets, and accommodations.

David Sanderson, general manager at Mission Point Resort, believes that people are more concerned now about the value of their purchases and are waiting longer to commit to vacation plans.

"I think people make decisions shorter term than they used to," he said. "It is an Internet phenomenon that will continue."

He said that Mission Point has focused advertising in Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin because of their good economies relative to Michigan's.

As for high gasoline prices, he said, "I think that probably what is happening is that people are shortening their trips. They may not be going all the way to Walt Disney World from Michigan, or to Yellowstone; they may take a trip closer to home. It stops some people from traveling, but as far as people coming to the Island, it won't stop too many of them. It would be nice to have data to show that, though."

Mr. Pfeiffelmann said that August is shaping up as a good month for the ferry services, and Mr. Shepler predicts that the post- Labor Day school opening might continue to push late-August statistics.

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