Wisconsin’s Tourism Industry Sees 30 Percent Spending Decline In 2020 Due To COVID-19

Officials Are Optimistic About A 2021 Rebound In Tourism Spending

a girl in a face mask hangs on a rail near a crowd buying tickets for a boat tour
7-year-old Hayley Contreras, left, wears a mask as she hangs on a rail as her family gets tickets for a boat tour Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in the Wisconsin Dells. Angela Major/WPR

The coronavirus pandemic hit the state’s tourism industry particularly hard in 2020, with direct spending down nearly 30 percent.

Statewide, tourism was about a $13.6 billion dollar industry in 2019, but it dropped about $4 billion dollars last year, to $9.8 billion, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

All of Wisconsin’s 72 counties saw a decline in tourism last year compared to 2019. But officials are optimistic about a rebound in 2021, reporting the first four months of the year are shaping up to be better than 2019.

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Acting Tourism Secretary Anne Sayers said people are “getting revenge” on COVID-19 and missed vacations in 2021.

National research shows 87 percent of Americans plan to travel in the next six months and plan to spend more money, Sayers said.

“We’re also finding vacations of two or more nights are up, so Wisconsin is already passing 2020, but we are also surpassing 2019, and that was a record-setting year,” Sayers said.

Dane and Milwaukee counties, which rely heavily on tourists for sports, cultural events, conventions and business travel, were the hardest hit in the state. Direct spending was down last year 39 percent in Dane County and 42.5 percent in Milwaukee County, compared to 2019, according to the Department of Tourism.

For those in Milwaukee, the list of disappointments in 2020 was long. Tens of thousands of people were supposed to visit the city for the Democratic National Convention. And staples like Summerfest and Wisconsin State Fair were also canceled.

Both of those events are on track for 2021, and Peggy Williams-Smith, who heads Milwaukee’s tourism bureau, VISIT Milwaukee, said she’s optimistic for this year.

“We’re starting to see occupancy throughout the market, our weekends are showing the strongest signs of growth,” Williams-Smith said. “As we continue to be more vaccinated as a city, a county, a state, a country, I do think more of these restrictions will roll back, and we’ll see more people travel more freely.”

Williams-Smith said Milwaukee’s arts and cultural scene is unrivaled across the country, and so are the miles of unrestricted Lake Michigan access.

“As people start to emerge from the cocoon that is coronavirus, I think there will still be some trepidation about being so close together and we offer all of the amenities of a big city, without bumping into 10 other people,” Williams-Smith said.