Extreme cold hurts U.P. tourism

ESCANABA – For winter tourism in the Upper Peninsula, snow can be a blessing, but this season’s heavy snowfall has had little impact on the region’s tourism.

“It is a regular winter regardless of the amount of snow we’ve received,” said Steve Masters, executive director of the Bays de Noc Convention and Visitors Bureau.

While snow conditions are good for winter activities like snowmobiling and skiing, the extreme cold experienced this winter combined with the snow in target markets for winter tourists, such as Wisconsin and the Lower Peninsula, have kept many at home.

“It’s kind of a strange scenario. We’re sitting here with great snow, but a couple of other factors are hurting us,” said Dave Nemacheck, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association.

Between Christmas and New Years – in a winter tourism period Nemacheck compares to the Fourth of July – many ski hills were forced to close due to the extreme temperatures.

Also hurt by the cold were hotels, which typically enjoy more guests during snowy winters.

“You can imagine how much it costs to heat a hotel. They’re sitting there with their expenses up looking at really good snow conditions,” said Nemacheck.

If quality snow remains but temperatures change, Nemacheck believes that tourism in the U.P. will rise.

“A few degrees warmer and I think the traffic will increase,” he said.

The cold weather hasn’t hurt all U.P. tourism. Tourists who visit the Bays de Noc to enjoy ice fishing have benefitted from a longer fishing season caused by an earlier freeze.

“Our ice fishing is on par … People were able to begin the ice fishing season a little earlier this year,” said Masters, adding that this season anglers were able to hit the ice in December, while in some years ice is not safe for fishing until late January.

Many snowmobilers – who may have greater incentive to brave the cold to enjoy their investments than skiers or other lovers of snow – have changed the routes for their long trips through the U.P. Typically longer, sometimes multi-day trips are more common in the northern Upper Peninsula, but the extreme cold and ample snowfall locally has brought some travelers through the central and lower U.P.

While this does bring more snowmobilers to the area than usual, the snowmobile season technically ends on March 31 when easements on private property that make up portions of the state’s snowmobile trail system will expire.

“If there’s good snow on the public lands … those parts of the trail that are on public land will stay open,” said Nemacheck.

A warm up in the short term may bring more skiers and others who want to enjoy the U.P. snow, but even if snow levels remain steady, the longer winter continues the more difficult it is to bring tourists to the area.

“We’ve had many years where we’ve still had snow, but we’ve run out of customers because they’re tired of winter,” said Nemacheck, adding that after February or mid-March attracting visitors becomes much more difficult.

Until then, winter events are one way that U.P. communities are drawing in crowds. Events like pond hockey, ice fishing tournaments, and winter carnivals bring in visitors who have either registered to participate in events or who return as spectators year after year.

“You’re building something that’s not as fickle as regular visitors,” said Nemacheck.