2005-05-20 / News

Island Prepares for Uncertain 2005 Tourist Season

By Leslie Rott

  • “It looks like it is going to be a very good season,” said John Hulett, predicting the summer, as everyone does on Mackinac Island this time of year. The managing director at Grand Hotel said that if people are “in the mind or the mood to travel,” they will, despite higher than normal gas prices.
  • Mr. Hulett said reservations at the hotel are up and that national press coverage of the Grand’s March 1 opening helped the hotel substantially.

    Gregory Hokans is more intrigued with the changes in tourism than he is with the ups and downs. He is the chief of development and marketing at Mackinac State Historic Parks and said his agency has seen changes in the types of people visiting the Island and in their traveling patterns. He said visitors are arriving on the Island later in the morning and staying later into the evening.

    To accommodate them, Fort Mackinac will stay open this summer until 9 p.m. and the Fort Mackinac Tea Room will stay open for dinner, beginning in June. Ticket booths will be open until 7:30 p.m.

    Traditional tourist markets at the fort have declined, Mr. Hokans notes, but new trends, such as an increase in senior citizen travel, are making up for it. Mr. Hokans notes that seniors are taking fewer group tours and, instead, are coming by themselves, as the aging population seems to be mobile and independent for a longer period of time.

    “We have to become better at serving the markets that are increasing,” he said.

    Mackinac State Historic Parks has also continued to entertain student groups, and Mr. Hokans says that student traffic has increased by “leaps and bounds.”

    He allows that other influences, such as weather and economy, have an impact on tourism, but despite a cold and wet and depressed spring, Mr. Hokans is optimistic about the summer.

    “This is a great time for us,” he announces in his best marketing voice.

    State travel experts agree.

    According to a recent survey of 400 Michigan residents, conducted by the American Automobile Association of Michigan, 1.3 million Michiganians will be traveling on Memorial Day, 39 percent of whom said they will be traveling again in the summer and 37 percent claiming their travel plans will be impacted by gas prices, although they will not be canceling their trips altogether.

    Nancy Cain, public relations manager for AAA Michigan, said that owing to high gas prices, more Michiganians will choose to stay in Michigan for their summer vacations, rather than travel out of state. She added that the top destination in Michigan is the Mackinaw City area, which, she said, includes Mackinac Island. Based on the travel poll, Ms. Cain said, “we think Northern Michigan will be a big tourist destination.”

    She said AAA believes tourism will be up this year, but that owing to construction and traffic congestion, many people will be avoiding peak travel times and leaving earlier and getting back later.

    Bob Benser Jr. is cautious. “Generally speaking,” said the president of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, “I’m looking for this season to be better than last season.” Advance bookings at Island hotels are up slightly from last year, he said, which is a good early indicator of travel to the Island. There is also a pent up demand for travel, and with more normal weather, this could be a better season, he predicts.

    But aside from the weather, gasoline prices, and the economy, over which businesses have little control, Mr. Benser sees tourism as a statewide problem.

    “Tourism,” he proposes, “has to be more of an economic development issue for the state.” Michigan spends only $8 million a year on tourism, placing the state 31st in the nation. He feels this is especially a problem, since tourism is the second largest industry in Michigan.

    Mr. Benser also suggests that a mandatory post-Labor Day school start would have an immediate, positive impact on tourism, statewide.

    Tom Pfeifflemann says that tourism on Mackinac Island has been declining for the past five years, and attributes the trend to a long period of bad summer weather and competition from other attractions.

    The general manager of Star Line Ferry postulates that there have been approximately 200,000 fewer tourists frequenting the Island then there were in 1998, the Island’s best year for tourism.

    Weather is the main culprit, he said. “There hasn’t been a heat wave in the Midwest since 1998.”

    Another factor is competition from other tourist attractions, like Cedar Point, Mackinaw City, and Six Flags. Mr. Pfeiffelmann attributed the increased competition to children, who he says dictate vacation destinations to their parents, and that since children “need to be entertained constantly,” families gravitate toward theme parks rather than the Island.

    The final factor that Mr. Pfeiffelmann mentioned is the cost of vacations. He said people want value for their money, but the perception of value is hard to capture. A day on Mackinac Island, he notes, is less expensive than a day spent at Disney World. An adult and child can take a ferry to and from the Island, take a carriage ride, visit Fort Mackinac, go to the Butterfly House, ride a bike for two hours, and eat lunch, he said, for the same price as admission to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World.

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