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Wisconsin tourism industry sees second straight year of record-breaking numbers

Wisconsin tourism industry supported more than 178K jobs in 2023, state Department of Tourism report found

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The village of Ephraim
The village of Ephraim, Wis., in Door County, is seen on June 16, 2021 after completion of a $358,000 project to place large rocks along the shoreline and create a new sidewalk and park space downtown to protect against high water levels in Lake Michigan. Photo courtesy of Tad Dukehart

Wisconsin’s tourism industry had a record-breaking $25 billion in economic impact in 2023, according to a new report from the state Department of Tourism.

It’s the second year in a row Wisconsin broke that record. In 2022, Wisconsin’s tourism industry had an economic impact of $23.7 billion, breaking the prior milestone of $22.2 billion in 2019.

The report found Wisconsin also hit a high in the number of overnight visitors, with nearly 46 million people staying overnight across the state last year.

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“We’re becoming a little less of a hidden gem and just simply a gem. And as Wisconsin gets added to more and more people’s bucket lists, we really benefit from that exposure,” said Craig Trost, communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

The report said the tourism industry supported more than 178,000 jobs last year. All 72 Wisconsin counties experienced an increase in economic impact.

“Obviously, visitor spending is what helps our residents and business and families that live here thrive so we obviously need good tourism to keep our economies going here in the Northwoods,” said Krystal Westfahl, president and CEO of Let’s Minocqua Visitors Bureau. 

Above, the 2011 Wisconsin Wife Carry Championship, which was held in Minocqua. Photo: Sandor Weisz (CC-BY-SA)

A statement from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism said there’s approximately $34 million in the Wisconsin 2023-25 biennial budget being used to “raise Wisconsin’s profile across the country as a premier business, cultural, and recreational destination.”

“Wisconsin tourism powers the economy and strengthens the fabric of communities of all sizes,” Wisconsin Tourism Secretary Anne Sayers said in the statement. “The historic impact of tourism reached every corner of Wisconsin and, in doing so, sustained livelihoods for thousands of our friends and neighbors.”

In Green Lake County, visitor spending increased from $39.5 million in 2022 to $44.3 million in 2023, according to the report. 

“It’s fantastic,” said Mark Wilton, the executive director of the Green Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. “Money being spent on tourism activities like this is going straight into a small business owner’s pocket.”

But even with the increases in 2023, it’s unclear what tourism spending will maintain its momentum. Westfahl said the mild winter and lack of snow kept visitors away from northern Wisconsin in January and February.

“Without having the weather cooperate — as it did not — that really is going to set the stage and impact the year-over-year numbers,” Westfahl said. 

“Summer is really our strong suit, but winter is a very close second, especially here in the Northwoods, and so we do need to see strong winters and we need to see a lot of people come on those off seasons,” she added. 

Skiers race on manmade snow Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, at the American Birkebeiner Ski Race in northern Wisconsin. Angela Major/WPR

But Westfahl said she’s still expecting to see strong summer tourism numbers this year.

“I expect that our (Northwoods) summers are going to be as strong as they have ever been and that really is where we make the most amount of money,” she said. 

Trost predicted a strong 2024 as well, given the success of “Top Chef,” which was filmed in Milwaukee and several other Wisconsin communities.

“We’re already seeing the ‘Top Chef’ effect happening in Wisconsin and it’s a really exciting thing for us,” Trost said. “We know that travelers love to travel by fork and that’s a big motivator for a lot of our visitors.” 

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