Wisconsin Tourism: Combining Fun with Data to Create Memories and a Big Economic Boost

By Pat Kreitlow

May 12, 2023

From outdoor recreation to major events and weekend road trips, tourism generates about $21 billion and employs around 170,000 Wisconsinites.

National Travel and Tourism Week is designed to encourage appreciation for those who work in the industry; but with 169,000 people working in that sector, Wisconsin clearly appreciates this major chunk of the economy on a 24/7/365 basis.

State Tourism Secretary Anne Sayers said the 2022 numbers are not ready quite yet, but she expects them to surpass an already healthy 2021 bounceback from the pandemic when travel and tourism contributed $20.9 billion to the state economy.

“That’s a huge number,” Sayers said on UpNorthNews Radio. “Our friends and our neighbors, their livelihoods are supported by the tourism industry in one way or another. We are bouncing back and continuing to contribute an awful lot to the state in terms of economic impact. And that’s good for every one of us as taxpayers.”

Gov. Tony Evers is also using this weekend’s radio address to toot Wisconsin’s tourism horn.

“Wisconsin outpaced the national average every month last year in travel spending compared to pre-pandemic levels,” Evers said. “In fact, this past fall was the best season for travel spending recovery in the last three years. And while I am all for being neighborly, we crushed our competitors in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota.”

Wisconsin tourism is dominated by two sectors. Outdoor recreation—fishing, camping, hiking, and more—brought in more than $8.7 billion. The other large chunk comes from special events.

“We have an event for literally everything,” Sayers said. “Right now on our website we have 1,450 events listed, so you can find one any day of the week for anything you might be interested in.”

Because there are so many types of activities—ranging from conventions to fairs, food, shopping, sports, and more, Sayers and her team at Travel Wisconsin have to constantly examine data to determine how best to use their budget for marketing and promotion.

“We start by looking at who are our target audiences, and who’s going to spend the most when they’re here?” Sayers said. “Who’s going to travel with the largest party size? Who’s going to stay the most nights? And of those folks, what do they want to do? Then we’ll make sure that we relay the message to them that we have exactly what everyone in their travel party is looking for and that all of them are going to go home with a story to tell.”

Evers said tourism is worth serious investment, and he credits using more than $200 million in federal pandemic relief funds as a factor in having the state’s pandemic recovery pace ahead of other states. That aid went to hotels and lodging, restaurants, entertainment, and other related industries.

“In my budget,” Evers said, “we proposed continuing the Tourism Capital Investment Program, continuing our support for the Office of Outdoor Recreation, and creating a new Meetings, Conventions, and Sports Bureau to keep promoting Wisconsin as a premier business, cultural, and recreational destination—among many other provisions to support and bolster this important economic engine.”

After accounting for the data and the investment in tourism infrastructure, Sayers said Wisconsin’s tourism success is also a natural outgrowth of who we are as Midwesterners.

“I think a big part of it is just something about our nature, who we are as people,” Sayers said. “We are fun-loving, quick to laugh. We’re friendly, down to earth. And I think all of those things play really well into vacation time and opportunities to connect with one another, friends and family. And yeah, we’ve always taken vacation very seriously here and as a result it’s turned into big business.


  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.

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