Wisconsin tourism industry recovering faster than in neighboring states, but still struggling post-pandemic

The state's third-largest industry is on track to 'match and surpass' 2019 success, secretary says

Two people walk on a sidewalk as they examine the exterior of stores on a sunny day.
People browse store windows Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in the Wisconsin Dells. Angela Major/WPR

Wisconsin’s tourism industry has seen a fast recovery from the pandemic compared to other states. But many sectors are not yet where they should be, leaders said at the Senate Committee of Agriculture and Tourism’s public hearing earlier this month.

“We know that we’re not back to where we need to be yet. And we all know there continues to be some pain points for a lot of important sectors,” said Anne Sayers, secretary-designee of the state Department of Tourism.

“Restaurants and hotels and other businesses, the arts, business travel, meetings and conventions all continue to lag,” Sayers said.

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Yet Sayers said Wisconsin has performed much better than its neighboring states.

Craig Trost, the communications director for the state Department of Tourism, pointed to preliminary findings from the U.S. Travel Association and its collaboration with Tourism Economics. Trost said the state is “recovering faster than the average state tourism.”

Sayers said that there are hurdles ahead for the industry, but “I know we’re on a path to soon match and surpass a record year of 2019.”

That year, the state Department of Tourism created the Office of Outdoor Recreation. Sayers said that outdoor recreation economy contributions to Wisconsin’s GDP rose from $7.8 billion in 2020 to $8.7 billion in 2021.

“That means that the outdoor recreation economy is actually growing at a rate three times faster than the state’s GDP,” Sayers said.

She said despite the pandemic, tourism generated nearly $21 billion in 2021. The sector supported more than 169,000 jobs and drew more than 102.3 million visitors, she added. Tourism economic data for 2022 will not be available until June, according to the department.

Leaders across the hospitality industry are preparing for a big-dollar event — the Republican National Convention in July 2024. Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said the RNC could bring in at least $220 million to the state’s economy.

Hillmer, also on the board of directors and the executive committee for VISIT Milwaukee, called the event “a golden opportunity, and we cannot waste it.”

“We need to have the marketing dollars to be able to support the department,” she said.

Under Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget, the Department of Tourism would secure $33.6 million in state funding for marketing to promote the state. He’s also calling to make the Office of Outdoor Recreation “a permanent hub,” with the support of $1.1 million and three new full-time positions.

Evers also wants to invest $30 million to “recruit large-scale events to Wisconsin” through an “opportunity and attraction fund.”

Among other goals, the administration also wants to create two full-time positions with a new Meetings, Conventions, and Sports Bureau within the Department of Tourism, supported by $2.7 million.

More funding and staff could go a long way, Sayers said, especially for a market that “is so much about relationships.”

“Those are numbers we can definitely handle and they would make us competitive with where Michigan or with where Minnesota is right now,” she said of two states on the same timeline as Wisconsin.

“It does stress me to think that if we stayed right where we were, and Minnesota gets what they need, we are, except for Iowa, fully surrounded by states that are competing entirely differently than we are,” she said.

Evers’ overall budget plan is unlikely to win support from the Republican-led Legislature. Republican Assembly Speaker ⁦Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called the governor’s budget “absolutely devoid of reality.”

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