Steven Walters
The State of Politics

State Tourism Leader Says Don’t Travel

Pandemic risk too great now, state “secretary of fun” says, but hoping for a tourism rebound.

By - May 26th, 2020 12:59 pm
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Devil's Lake. Photo by CrispAir at en.wikipedia (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Devil’s Lake. Photo by CrispAir at en.wikipedia (Own work) (CC BY 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

On this Memorial Day, how far did you roam from home?

For the first time, the state tourism secretary – a job once called “secretary of fun” – hoped you didn’t go far.

“What we’re not doing is actively promoting travel,” Tourism Secretary Sara Meaney said in a WisconsinEye interview before Memorial Day, the traditional start of the summer vacation and travel season.

That unusual advice comes after a record year for the state’s tourism industry: $22.2 billion in direct and indirect spending by Wisconsin residents roaming around their state and out-of-state visitors in 2019.

“No one wants people to travel in Wisconsin more than I do,” Meaney added.

But.

“The risk of spreading or contracting the (COVID-19) virus still exists. When we move around, or move to other areas of the state, we increase the chances of potentially getting or spreading the virus to communities that are not in the same position we might be in to take care of those who may fall ill.”

Translation: Meaney knows you missed Memorial Day weekend parades, festivals, or fairs; missed heading Up North – our unofficial 73rd county – to a resort, second home or cottage, and missed that grilled brats and cold beer campout with extended family.

But, this year, the danger – spreading or contracting a deadly virus – is too great.

“When we make choices to put ourselves and our family near other folks, we have to keep in mind what keeps us safe — and what helps keep them safe,” Meaney said.

COVID-19 has “decimated” Wisconsin’s tourism industry, Meaney added. “Heartbreaking – one of the toughest times in our lifetime.”

USA Travel estimated a Wisconsin tourism industry loss of $1.7 billion in the first two months after Gov. Tony Evers issued a Safer at Home order. Hotel and lodging industry occupancy rates averaged only between 3 percent and 25 percent. State state tax collections fell 43 percent in April, when the jobless rate jumped to 14 percent.

One estimate predicted a 45 percent loss in the tourism and travel industry nationally, Meaney noted.

Meaney’s advice for this summer: “The virus doesn’t have a timeline…Get outside. Do things you love, in your own community. Support the businesses that need your support more than ever.”

One reason Wisconsin is “well-positioned” for a tourism rebound is our love of “outdoor recreation,” Meaney added. “There’s a lot of space for people to spread out, roam and check out our amazing state.”

Beloit native Stephanie Klett, the popular tourism secretary for the eight years that Republican Scott Walker was governor, offered a name – Room to Roam – for the plea to enjoy the outdoors.

“Physical distancing is baked into Wisconsin’s wide-open spaces,” said Klett, now president of VISIT Lake Geneva. “Remind people that Wisconsin’s environmental history is exceptional – Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day 50 years ago, plus beloved Aldo Leopold and John Muir.”

Klett offered other ideas to promote tourism in this COVID-19 season:

*”Start local, stress local. More than half of Wisconsinites spend their vacation days here. That’s the strong base to get tourism going again, because they already love the product and only need a little encouragement.”

*”Support local/regional marketing partners” — regional visitors’ organizations, chambers of commerce and convention partners. But, because they rely on local hotel/motel sales taxes, some of their revenues “have declined by nearly 90 percent.”

So, Klett said, give these local tourism groups some of that $1.9 billion in federal aid to help the state recover from the pandemic. Last week, Gov. Evers announced how all but some $500 million of that will be spent.

*Welcome out-of-state visitors. “Gently remind everyone that Wisconsin depends on the hundreds of millions of dollars these visitors bring our state. Be welcoming, while also encouraging every visitor to practice social distancing and even make [face] masks a new mark of hospitality.”

*Swing for the fences in national destination marketing,” by pitching national news outlets on “Wisconsin’s great care for people and for the land, leading with stories of pandemic heroism in our state.”

*Ask past popular champions of Wisconsin – Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Henry Winkler, Tony Shaloub and the film-makinging Zucker brothers – to “help Wisconsin again” with media posts or a Zoom reunion.

And, Klett said, “Let’s ask Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning NBA MVP, to join the party. I’ll bet the Greek Freak would say yes in a heartbeat.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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