|By Barry Adams, The Wisconsin State
JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 9, 2010--There wasn't as much fun in Wisconsin last year and -- no surprise -- the killjoy was the economy.
Figures released Sunday by the state Department of Tourism show vacation, convention and other visitor spending was $12.1 billion in 2009, down by more than $1 billion, or 7.8 percent compared to 2008.
The steep decline comes after years of tourism spending increases, with the exception of a dip in 2007.
Tourism spending rose 80.6 percent from 1996 to 2009, but it likely will take two years to return to the 2008 level, when visitors spent $13.1 billion in Wisconsin, said Kelli Trumble, the state's tourism secretary.
"We'll have modest growth in 2010 and then more improvement in 2011," Trumble said. "It just goes to show how the recession had a strong hold on the economy."
The annual tourism study, conducted by Davidson-Peterson Associates of Kennebunk, Maine, found each of Wisconsin's 72 counties had declines in tourism spending. Thirteen of those counties had double-digit percentage decreases, with Sheboygan County leading the list at 16.7 percent.
However, Wisconsin, where tourism is one of the leading industries along with manufacturing and agriculture, fared better than the 9 percent average drop nationally, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Tourism in Wisconsin supported 286,000 jobs in 2009 compared with 310,330 the previous year, generated $1.9 billion in tax revenue and provided $6.7 billion in income, state tourism officials reported.
The survey drew data from more than 1,500 face-to-face interviews, 3,000 telephone interviews with businesses and 800 telephone interviews with Wisconsin residents.
Dane County, which ranked second in tourism spending, saw a decrease of 4.6 percent in spending to $1.18 billion, while spending in Milwaukee County, the state's top tourist destination, dropped 11.2 percent to $1.5 billion.
"The downturn we experienced was not as severe as seen in other areas," said Deb Archer, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We continue to attract visitors to our community through key drivers, such as the UW-Madison and convention, event and meeting attendance at our great facilities."
Madison-area business leaders will gather Tuesday at the Overture Center, where Trumble will talk about a statewide initiative aimed at keeping more conventions and meetings by state-based businesses in Wisconsin.
"When companies began slashing budgets and tightening belts, that really impacted that particular niche market," Trumble said. "It was the fastest-growing market for a couple of years."
Wisconsin Dells, the "Waterpark Capital of the World," did better than most of the state's top tourist destinations, despite the recession and a rain-filled July. Spending was down 3.8 percent to $1.03 billion, but the number of visitors increased 8 percent to 3.02 million, according to a separate report compiled by Davidson-Peterson for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau.
"Certainly being a well recognized, long-standing brand helps," said Romy Snyder, executive director of the visitor and convention bureau. "Our customers knew what we offered. They weren't taking a chance on something new. They knew their money would go a long way for them."
But many other tourism-oriented areas weren't as fortunate.
In Brown County, the heart of Packerland, spending dropped 12.3 percent; Walworth County, which includes Lake Geneva, was down 11.1 percent; and Door County, home to fish boils, cherries and a number of state parks, dropped 11 percent.
Jon Jarosh, a spokesman for the Door County Visitor Bureau, said there is optimism for this year. Room-tax totals for January and February were up compared with 2009, and visits to the bureau's website are up 38 percent.
"That doesn't mean business will be up that much, but we're encouraged that people are checking us out," Jarosh said. "We're hoping this year people will have a little more discretionary money."
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