When will people be comfortable traveling? For Michigan, that’s a multi-billion-dollar question.

By: - May 3, 2020 8:49 am

Traverse City | Susan J. Demas

Alyson Burch was planning to visit family and friends in the Flint area on her vacation in August. Now she’s thinking about canceling.

Burch, 33, lives in Dickinson County in the Upper Peninsula, where there have been only three confirmed cases and two deaths from COVID-19. Flint is located in Genesee County, which has more than 1,600 cases and almost 200 deaths as of Saturday, per the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Alyson Burch

“I think it would be unfair to go to a place with a higher probability of getting sick and then come back to a place where there’s lower amounts of COVID-19 cases,” said Burch.

As others make similar calculations, trips are being canceled or postponed, and festivals are being called off. Many are increasingly worried that the state’s once-bustling tourism industry — which reaches its peak in summer — will be another industry devastated by COVID-19.

Otie McKinley, spokesperson for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), stressed that it’s too early to speculate how long, and to what magnitude, COVID-19 will impact tourism. But David Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, a division of MEDC, acknowledged the disease was causing challenges.

“It’s a matter of if and when people are going to feel comfortable traveling,” said Lorenz.

McKinley said tourists contributed $25.7 billion to Michigan’s economy in 2019. That includes thousands who gather at cabins and campgrounds or attend the state’s many festivals — although many already have been canceled or postponed.

Another challenge, McKinley said, is that there is currently no money budgeted for the Pure Michigan advertising campaign in Fiscal Year 2020 after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed funds in the state budget last year. Money was supposed to be restored in a deal between the governor and Legislature earlier this year, but she again vetoed funds as state costs to fight COVID-19 have skyrocketed.


Lorenz said the lack of funding also will impact Travel Michigan’s ability to promote travel once Whitmer’s stay-home order is lifted.

“Just when this industry is going to most need the support from Pure Michigan, we won’t actually have the budget to help quickly generate travel,” said Lorenz.

But there’s another problem. The rate of COVID-19 cases is flattening overall in Michigan, but there have been more than 43,000 cases and 4,000 deaths to date. With inadequate testing, no vaccine and no cure, many people still are hesitant to travel, even as the state begins to open up. 

Kim Kroll enjoys her vacation with her family in Lewiston, MI. | Kim Kroll photo

Kim Kroll, 46, of Lapeer had planned to take her family to Lewiston in northern Michigan this July and stay in a cabin, as they do every year. But this year, she’s concerned about spreading the disease to her dad.

“My dad’s health isn’t great and I’m not sure how he would weather the virus, said Kroll.

So her trip, like so many others, may be on hold.

Festivals postponed

Many of the state’s most popular festivals also are on hold for the year, including the National Trout Festival in Kalkaska, Electric Forest in Rothbury and the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced last month that the state’s largest city would not hold its annual fireworks slated for June 22.

“There’s no way that anybody’s going to allow crowds — certainly I’m not going to allow crowds of that size on the original schedule,” Duggan said at a press conference.

One of Michigan’s most well-known events, the National Cherry Festival in the tourist haven of Traverse City, also was canceled. The more than week-long festival draws at least 500,000 people to northwestern Michigan each July.

Electric Forest | Laina G. Stebbins

Cherry Festival Executive Director Kat Paye said this is taking an economic toll — and an emotional one.

“There are no words to describe how incredibly sad it is that the festival will not happen this year as planned,” Paye said. “The staff, board of directors and our volunteers put in thousands of hours to pull together our eight-day long celebration.”

Paye said some expenses already have racked up for the festival this year. Some deposits for equipment and entertainment will be moved to 2021, but some won’t be refunded.

And there’s a bigger impact of the festival to the local economy that will be lost. 

According to the most recent study from Grand Valley State University, Traverse City’s economy got a boost of more than $26.7 million from the festival in 2016.

National Cherry Festival photo

A little bit further south along the Lake Michigan shore, people in Holland would normally be getting ready to host visitors at its annual Tulip Time Festival.

The May festival typically draws more than 500,000 people over nine days, and festival organizer Gwen Auwerda said the festival injects $48 million into the local economy.

The decision to cancel will cost $500,000 or more to the Holland Tulip Time Festival group, the local 501(c)3 nonprofit that organizes the festival.

“Had COVID-19 appeared in the state earlier, we could have adjusted our expenses and put a festival together that wasn’t as large. We are in a very difficult financial position with 10 months of expenses already spent and two-thirds of our income from ticket sales being refunded,” said Auwerda.

COVID-19 also has led to significant changes being made to the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival, which takes place in mid-June and draws hundreds of thousands of people to the 3.8 square mile slice of floral paradise in the Straits of Mackinac.

Mackinac Island | Susan J. Demas

Currently, the festival is still scheduled, but the Grand Lilac Parade and Dog and Pony Show will not be a part of it, said Tim Hygh, executive director of Mackinac Island Tourism. However, Hygh said he and his staff will be working to offer lilac lovers a virtual festival experience.

“We are working hard to bring everything but the smells of the lilacs themselves into their homes,” said Hygh.

Hygh said the cost of hosting the festival changes every year, but the vendors he worked with have returned deposits.

“They are as disappointed as we are about our 2020 modifications, but all of them want to return for the 2021 Mackinac Island Lilac Festival,” said Hygh.

The cancelation of festivals big and small also will affect business owners.

Bond Falls, Upper Peninsula | Susan J. Demas

Bugsy Sailor, founder of Upper Peninsula Supply Company in Marquette — a U.P. hot spot for camping, hiking and fishing — said stores in the area rely on tourism in the spring and summer months to stay open. He’s concerned about how COVID-19 will impact his business.

“We make about 50% of our revenue from tourism. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried,” said Sailor.

While his business is open year around, Sailor said he’s thankful online sales are generating revenue right now during the stay-home order.

“I am doing OK right now because I have a little bit of a cushion, but it’s not enough to sit on for a while,” he said.

“We want to open our doors to customers. I just hope there’s someone on the other side wanting to come in,” Sailor added.

Susan J. Demas

Lorenz of Travel Michigan shares the same hope when it comes to people venturing out of their homes and hitting the road once more COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. He added he’s feeling more positive than most travel directors.

“We Michiganders have spent a long winter in our homes and we go through cabin fever,” said Lorenz. “Now our cabin fever has been extended beyond the point where most people can’t wait to go travel.”

Lorenz also said canceling major events like the National Cherry Festival or the Tulip Time Festival won’t stop people from visiting areas that are dependent on tourism.

Holland tulip festival. | Devon Mahieu photo

“People’s pent up need to travel will win out. Americans no longer see travel as leisure or a luxury; we see it as a right,” said Lorenz. 

And he’s hoping Michiganders want to stay in-state for vacations.

“We have a lot to offer, like fresh water, clean air and open skies,” Lorenz said. “Let’s hope that we’ll still be in their mind.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

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Madeline Ciak
Madeline Ciak

Madeline Ciak is a former Michigan Advance reporter. She’s a University of Michigan-Flint graduate and previously worked as a digital media manager at NBC25/FOX66 in Flint and a weekend producer at ABC12.