2011-09-03 / Top News

New Faces of Michigan Tourism

International Travelers Growing
By Lauren Gibbons

Sudhe Mehrotra, (from left) Ellora Korbat, Manjeet Korbat, and Gurcharn Singh pause in front of Marquette Park during their first visit to Mackinac Island Tuesday, August 16. Ms. Mehrotra, Mrs. Korbat, and Mr. Singh traveled to the United States from India to visit family in Ann Arbor, and decided to take a trip to the Island because they’d heard good things about it. Sudhe Mehrotra, (from left) Ellora Korbat, Manjeet Korbat, and Gurcharn Singh pause in front of Marquette Park during their first visit to Mackinac Island Tuesday, August 16. Ms. Mehrotra, Mrs. Korbat, and Mr. Singh traveled to the United States from India to visit family in Ann Arbor, and decided to take a trip to the Island because they’d heard good things about it. Nakamura Satosha hadn’t seen Mackinac Island in 25 years, but for him, a return journey to the Island wasn’t always just a car ride and boat trip away.

A resident of Japan, Mr. Satosha is staying in Michigan for an extended period on a business trip. He had recently heard good reviews of Mackinac Island and had dim memories of his experience here all those years ago, so he decided to come back while he was in the United States.

“I visited here with my family, but I could not remember this area,” he said. “I wanted to experience it again.”

During his visit this summer, Mr. Satosha took a ride with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours and visited Grand Hotel, with which he was most impressed. Just staying for one day, he returned to Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

People like Mr. Satosha, who travel to the United States from foreign countries and are looking for destination hot spots, are steadily increasing in Michigan, and many local businesses, tour groups, and the state and national governments are looking to capitalize on the trend.

Tourism Promotion in Michigan

Because of Michigan’s location, the tourists coming into the United States usually don’t visit here on their first trip over, instead going to more well-known venues on the coasts or to big cities, said George Zimmermann, vice president of Travel Michigan, a state department that organizes tourism campaigns, the most notable among them Pure Michigan.

State officials involved in tourism acknowledge this fact, and have focused efforts on drawing international tourists taking vacations in the States on return trips.

The primary way Travel Michigan and other tourism entities in the Great Lakes area attract international tourists is through consumer promotions and publicity, because advertising in foreign countries is too expensive for the state budget, Mr. Zimmermann said. Travel writers from foreign countries are brought to top tourist spots in Michigan so they can experience the state and write about it.

Because of the unique qualities of Mackinac Island, many international travelers coming to Michigan consider Mackinac Island to be an important destination in the region, he said. The travel writers are impressed by the lack of cars, the beauty of the Island, and the rich history.

“The novelty of Mackinac is a great story for journalists to tell,” he said.

Travel Michigan currently is recruiting travel writers only from European countries with mature travel markets with consistent rates of travel to the United States, such as Great Britain and Germany.

The next step, Mr. Zimmermann said, is to expand into Japan, China, South Korea, and other Asian countries, where markets are growing.

“Japan is a very mature travel market,” he said. “There is a big surge in travel from South Korea, and China is on everybody’s list because of the tremendous economic growth. They would provide such a great market for us.”

National Efforts

Efforts to bring international visitors into the United States are increasing at the national level, as well. In 2010, President Barack Obama passed the Travel Promotion Act, which prompted the creation of a new public-private corporation, the Corporation for Travel Promotion. The federal organization began in late September 2010 and hired a CEO in May 2011.

Using donations from companies in the travel and tourism industry, as well as funds from fees charged to visitors coming from countries with visa waivers, the group is developing programs, including a gobal advertising campaign, to attract revenue and visitors from foreign lands to the United States.

The corporation will not promote any one tourist destination, but plans to advertise the United States as a whole. This could help increase the awareness of secondary destinations like the Great Lakes region and Mackinac Island, said Jim Evans, the CEO of the Corporation for Travel Promotion, in a statement.

“Part of America’s unique appeal is the diversity of experience we offer visitors,” he said. “The Corporation for Travel Promotion will be particularly beneficial to destinations and businesses that haven’t been able to afford to market themselves to international destinations in the past. For the first time, destinations like Mackinac Island will benefit from marketing platforms that are specifically designed to showcase attractions that are off the beaten path, resulting in more heads in hotel beds, more diners at restaurants, and more customers at local businesses.”

Mr. Zimmermann said he looks forward to seeing where the corporation will go next, and hopes their efforts will benefit Michigan.

“We will take a look at where they go next and buy into opportunities that they create, and that might be a way we can enter some of those markets,” he said.

Capitalizing on International Traveling Trends

Mackinac Island was far from a typical tourist destination for Manjeet Korbat, who was visiting her son and his family in Ann Arbor from her home in India and came north for a week on the recommendation of a friend, visiting several popular Lake Huron destinations along on the way.

While on the Island, she bought fudge, saw Arch Rock, visited Fort Mackinac, and took a tour with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, like many of the other tourists who visit Mackinac, but she was impressed most with the natural beauty the Island presented, intensified by the absence of cars.

One of Ms. Korbat’s favorite Mackinac memories will be rounding a corner of M-185 and seeing all of the rock piles scattered along the shore.

“People have spent time and given so much to the visitors. It was nice,” she said. “We took lots of pictures.”

After taking a bicycle trip around Mackinac, Ms. Korbat said she would like to come back.

“I would like to make one more trip and stay a longer time, so I can really feel the place and not get caught up in touristy things like biking and shopping,” she said. “I would like to stay and feel the place. I loved it.”

As is the case with Ms. Korbat, many international tourists come to Mackinac Island and the Great Lakes region because of what they hear from friends, family, or other trusted sources. This word-of-mouth tactic is one of the best ways to build up a reputation for the area and get more people coming back, said Toby McCarrick, executive director of Great Lakes USA.

Great Lakes USA is a marketing consortium, essentially working with state travel directors throughout the Great Lakes region to promote the area with travel agents, public relations, and travel shows in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

Mr. McCarrick said the prospect of taking vacation and going on trips is different for international travelers than it is for Americans. They book their trips through local travel agencies and tour operators far more frequently than booking on the Internet. European travelers also take longer trips, as opposed to the shorter, weekend trips many Americans take.

“Over there, people are very serious about their travel,” he said.

The current exchange rate of United States currency is a big factor for many foreign tourists, as well, Mr. McCarrick said.

Typically, international travelers to the Great Lakes region are seasoned travelers to the United States, and they are at the point of being comfortable with renting cars and driving to destinations. Most foreign visitors to Michigan have seen quite a few of America’s big cities and are searching for a new kind of vacation, he said, and Great Lakes USA tries to capitalize on that concept to get them into the area.

“When they really start finding us, they’re looking for something different,” he said. “They’ve seen the manmade stuff, but they’re kind of looking for that real America feel.”

Numbers of travelers from foreign countries to the Great Lakes region, as a whole, plummeted with the recession, but are now steadily rising again, Mr. McCarrick said. Mackinac Island, in particular, he said, is a big selling point for Great Lakes travel because of its uniqueness, and many travelers come to the Great Lakes area with Mackinac in mind.

International Tourism on a Local Level

Increased investment in bringing international tourists on longer vacations to the United States likely would be beneficial to many industries, particularly the hotel industry. R.D. “Dan” Musser III, president of Grand Hotel, said inter- national tourism at the hotel has been steady this year, coming both to see the hotel just for a day and as overnight guests.

Grand Hotel generally focuses on American markets because advertising internationally is too much of an expense for the company. Through travel agencies, tour groups, and other media, Grand Hotel tries to put itself on the map by making its presence known, and welcomes the international guests who come through.

The wide representation of nationalities working at Grand Hotel is helpful to international tourists if guests don’t speak English, Mr. Musser said. He said it also helps some foreign visitors relate better to the Island as a whole.

“I love the fact that we have different countries among our staff,” he said. “It gives us an international flair.”

Mr. Musser said he wholeheartedly supports state, regional, and national efforts to increase international tourism to the United States, particularly the Great Lakes area, and said Mackinac Island businesses would greatly benefit from increased traffic from foreign nations.

“As our economy grows stronger, it’s something we should look into,” he said. “I wish more people knew about Mackinac Island.”

Chris Shepler, vice president of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry, said the company has seen a 5% to 8% increase of international travelers, particularly in tour groups, from areas such as Europe, South America, Asia, and Canada.

Many foreign visitors travel on Shepler’s Ferry with tour groups as part of a Mackinac Island tour package. International day visitors are also increasing, he said, but his company doesn’t track their numbers.

By working with national tour associations, Mr. Shepler said the company has found a niche with international tour bookings, offering the ferry trip on Shepler’s with a number of other Mackinac Island and Michigan activities.

“We have a pretty good pulse of the market, and we have seen an increase,” he said.

To accommodate international travelers, Shepler’s offers a French-speaking step-on guide upon request and a staff with knowledge of several foreign languages for those who require translation. These practices are not often needed, but Mr. Shepler said the services have been of great assistance for some international travelers.

For employees of Fort Mackinac, keeping track of visitors coming from international destinations is an item of interest, said Greg Hokans, chief of development and marketing for Mackinac State Historic Parks. The historical interpreters have a tradition of keeping an informal tally board of visitors’ hometowns, and by their count, people from 43 countries have walked through the doors of Fort Mackinac this year.

Mr. Hokans said numbers like this are encouraging, because it means the history of Mackinac Island is important to many people throughout the world.

“It really is reflective of the heritage here. The Island has always been a gathering place for cultures, be it Native Americans, French, and British during the fur trade, and others,” he said.

While an estimated 50% of Fort Mackinac’s market comes from within the state of Michigan, and less than 1% of the market is made up of international travelers, Mr. Hokans said their interest is a testament to the global reach of Fort Mackinac and the Island as a whole.

“Mackinac Island has that reach and that level of interest that people would come here to choose Mackinac as an incredible vacation experience,” he said. “That’s not something to be overlooked as an important part of who we are.”

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