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Wisconsin tourism’s 2022 economic impact breaks pre-pandemic record, sets new overnight visit record

'We're really proud as an industry to be part of the economic engine for our entire state,' says state tourism secretary

A family hikes through Door County.
A family hikes through Door County. The county’s economic impact from tourism exceeded pre-pandemic levels in 2021, and again in 2022. Photo Courtesy of Destination Door County

Last year, Wisconsin broke its pre-pandemic record for economic impact from tourism by more than $1 billion, and it set a new record for overnight stays, according to the state Department of Tourism.

The department released a report last week that showed Wisconsin tourism had an economic impact of $23.7 billion in 2022, surpassing the previous record of $22.2 billion in 2019.

In a statement, Gov. Tony Evers said the growth is a testament to the Wisconsin businesses, workers and marketing partners.

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“I’m proud of our work to support this critical industry and its success over these past few years,” he said. “We must continue to make key investments in Wisconsin tourism to ensure it continues to be a key part of our economy for generations.”

Along with the report, the Department of Tourism released data on all 72 counties that showed only five generated less economic activity from tourism in 2022 than 2019. All counties saw their tourism impact increase from 2021 to 2022.

The report said the industry helped sustain 1-in-21 Wisconsin jobs last year and supported more than 174,000 jobs. It also said each Wisconsin household would have to pay an additional $620 in taxes to maintain the same level of government services that are generated by tourism spending.

“These tax dollars come into our state and lawmakers can then decide from there how to spend them to further the growth of our state,” said Anne Sayers, secretary of the state Department of Tourism. “We’re really proud as an industry to be part of the economic engine for our entire state that supports all taxpayers.”

Wisconsin also saw its most overnight visits ever last year with 45.4 million, an increase of 13.8 percent from the previous year, the report said.

“That wasn’t by accident,” Sayers said. “That’s something that we’ve really focused on helping visitors to see the importance of staying a little bit longer in Wisconsin and packing those itineraries with even more activities.”

Wisconsin Department of Tourism Secretary Anne Sayers and Gov. Tony Evers take a selfie with Discover Oshkosh Officials
Wisconsin Department of Tourism Secretary Anne Sayers, top left, and Gov. Tony Evers, second from top left, take a selfie with Discover Oshkosh officials at the EAA Aviation Museum Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Photo courtesy of Discover Oshkosh

Local tourism officials attributed the record-breaking year to pent-up demand as visitors felt more comfortable traveling than they had since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think 2021 still felt a little bit like things were opened back up, but people’s comfort levels were all over the board,” said Amy Albright, executive director of Discover Oshkosh. “In 2022, (that) was sort of that first year where people really felt like, ‘We can do this event (and) we’re back to meetings and conventions.’”

In Oshkosh, Albright said the annual EAA AirVenture air show had record attendance last year, drawing 650,446 guests to the Fox Valley. That helped boost Winnebago County’s economic impact from tourism from $509 million in 2019 to $522 million in 2022.

“EAA is such a large contributor to tourism, in Oshkosh and Winnebago County, but really is one of leading events in the state,” Albright said.

Other northeast Wisconsin communities also saw their tourism impact increase from 2019 to 2022. One of those includes Door County, which has long been a tourist destination.

In fact, the economic impact of tourism in Door County grew by more than $100 million from $478 million in 2019 to $582 million last year, according to data from the state. Julie Gilbert, president of Destination Door County, said the county exceeded 2019 impacts in 2021, which she believes shows it’s a destination that made people feel safe.

“This is the type of destination that people wanted to come to, and they still are continuing to do that,” she said of 2022 surpassing 2021. “It’s really a tribute to our tourism businesses.”

She said it doesn’t hurt that one of the county’s most high-profile boosters is Green Bay Packers running back AJ Dillon, who often showcases Door County on his social media and received the “key to the county” in 2021.

“He and his wife, they are absolutely incredible,” Gilbert said. “We can’t thank them enough for their support and love for the county. We have adopted him, and he has adopted us.”

Similarly, Brown County, home to the city of Green Bay, also saw its tourism impact rise from nearly $1.2 billion in 2019 to almost $1.3 billion last year. Nick Meisner, vice president of digital marketing and communications for Discover Green Bay, said the greater Green Bay area saw an increase in the number of visitors last year.

Fans in Packers gear drink beer at tables set up near the stadium.
Packers fans sit in the Titletown District in Ashwaubenon before a preseason home game Friday, Aug. 19, 2022. Angela Major/WPR

He said the area’s events were key to attracting tourists last year, including Packers games, meetings and conventions, the 2022 Para Ice Hockey Women’s World Challenge and an international soccer match.

“All of these things kind of came together to build towards these numbers that we’re seeing,” he said.

In looking ahead to 2023, local tourism officials are optimistic — as is the state Department of Tourism. Sayers said the state has already seen a good number of winter visitors and now it’s headed for the peak summer season.

“We’re also seeing the traveler sentiment numbers where they tell us whether they plan to travel or not — those are really high,” she said. “We continue to feel really good about the role that Wisconsin tourism will play for the state.”