A woman paddle boards in Peninsula State Park in Door County. The county's tourism bureau expects a busy Memorial Day weekend as people begin to travel again after a year of staying put during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of John Nienhuis/Destination Door County)
A woman paddle boards in Peninsula State Park in Door County. The county's tourism bureau expects a busy Memorial Day weekend as people begin to travel again after a year of staying put during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of John Nienhuis/Destination Door County)

With the pandemic slowing, people are on the move again. Wisconsin’s tourism industry is ready.

With the COVID-19 pandemic tapering off as cases decrease and vaccinations rise, Memorial Day weekend is expected to provide a much-needed bounceback for Wisconsin’s tourism industry after a year of health concerns and uncertainty torpedoed travel in the state.

“Travel is back,” said Craig Trost, communications director for Travel Wisconsin. “It’s coming back in a big way.”

When the pandemic was still very new and Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order was still in place, just 455,000 people traveled in Wisconsin for last year’s Memorial Day weekend, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), a roughly 45% decrease from 2019. A significant rebound is expected, with AAA projecting about 712,000 travelers this weekend—a 14% decrease from 2019 but a 56% increase from 2020.  

“There’s just a lot of pent-up demand,” said Nick Jarmusz, AAA’s director of public affairs. “People have been sticking around close to home for quite a while now, and [are] definitely ready to get out on the road, get a change of scenery, and explore the country again.”

Of course, the pandemic isn’t over: The state passed 7,000 COVID-19 deaths this week and an average of just under 300 Wisconsinites are testing positive for the virus each day, according to Department of Health Services data. Vaccinations have also slowed to a crawl, with weekly doses having fallen for nearly two months straight. 

The backdrop of the pandemic means that some annual festivals and regular attractions in the state have been canceled or altered to mitigate health risks. 

Door County, for instance, is the second-most vaccinated county in the state with 58.3% of residents having completed their vaccine series. But event organizers are still being cautious in the northeastern Wisconsin tourist hotspot; the annual Fyr Bal festival in Ephraim and Maifest in Jacksonport are taking the year off, while others are taking additional safety precautions, said Jon Jarosh, director of communications and public relations for Destination Door County.

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“It’s gonna be a mixed bag this year in terms of our events and festivals,” Jarosh said. “But I think really most of our businesses are gonna be back open and operating.” 

Still, Jarosh said, Destination Door County expects a “robust” Memorial Day weekend. The tourist bureau encourages travelers, especially those who are unvaccinated, to bring a mask and follow health guidelines and requirements at local establishments, Jarosh said.

In southeastern Wisconsin, Lake Geneva is expecting a similarly successful travel weekend, said Stephanie Klett, president and CEO of Visit Lake Geneva and former state tourism secretary and host of “Discover Wisconsin.”

“Our hotels are booked, all of our attractions are open, and of course [in] Lake Geneva, we’re very fortunate this region is big with outdoor activity, which is really what kept us moving throughout COVID,” Klett said.

Due to the ongoing worker shortage in the service industry, Klett said travelers in Lake Geneva and elsewhere should be prepared for longer wait times. 

“That’s going to be happening in every destination across the state,” Klett said.