Wisconsin’s tourism industry is recovering faster than neighboring states, but is still struggling after the pandemic

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

“We know we’re still not back to where we need to be. And we all know there continue to be some pain points for very important sectors,” said Ann Sayers, secretary-designate of the state Department of Tourism.

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

Still, Sayers said Wisconsin fared much better than its neighboring states.

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

Sayers said there are hurdles ahead for the industry, but “I know we’re on track to match and surpass the record 2019 very soon.”

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

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

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

Hospitality industry leaders are gearing up for a big-dollar event — the Republican National Convention in July 2024. Christine Hilmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said the RNC could bring in at least $220 million to the economy of the state.

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Hilmer, also a member of VISIT Milwaukee’s board of directors and executive committee, called the event “a golden opportunity and we can’t waste it.”

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

According to Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget, the Department of Tourism will provide $33.6 million in state marketing funding to promote the state. It also calls for making the Office of Outdoor Recreation a “permanent hub” with $1.1 million in support and three new full-time positions.

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

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

More funding and staffing 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 put us competitive with Michigan or Minnesota right now,” she said of two states on the same timeline as Wisconsin.

“It really stresses me out that if we stay where we’ve been and Minnesota gets what it needs, we’re, with the exception of Iowa, completely surrounded by states that compete completely differently from us,” she said.

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

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