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Tourism rates fall but outdoor recreation sees massive increase over the last year

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - A study by the 7 Rivers Alliance on tourism and economic numbers across the region found in 2020 the tourism rates fell greatly but outdoor activity rates skyrocketed.

The 7 Rivers Alliance is a regional economic development organization that serves eight counties in Western Wisconsin, two counties in Northeast Iowa, and three is Southeastern Minnesota.

Chris Hardie, CEO of 7 Rivers Alliance, explained that he works with economic development and tourism partners throughout the region to help grow their economy.

"Tourism is a very important economic development tool in our region and it has a significant economic impact," said Hardie. "In 2019, before the pandemic, tourism spending in our region of Wisconsin was just shy of $600 million. If you add in Iowa and Minnesota, there was an estimated $812 million economic impact."

Hardie explained that this supports about 9,000 jobs in our region. La Crosse County businesses sales alone was nearly $458 million. While they don't have the specific numbers yet from 2020, but Hardie said the differences are likely tremendous.

"Tourism is really based on the more people that are there for overnight stays, the more revenue is generated because not only are they staying, but they are eating and drinking and purchasing," said Hardie.

While they saw many small businesses and the hospitality industry struggle, they did see an increase in outdoor activities.

"What we did see is an exceptional year for campgrounds, fishing sales, license sales, outdoor recreation was exceptionally high last year and of course, with distancing concerns and the pandemic, that was a place that people felt they could still do some things and be safe," said Hardie. "That was the good and the bad when it came to 2020."

For places like Smith's Bike Shop, it was a hard year because of the increase in outdoor recreation.

"People started buying bikes and they were buying a lot of bikes and it pretty much wiped out the entire inventory in the entire country," said Erik Pueschner, owner of Smith's Bike Shop

He said that stock has been very slow to replenish and because of that, the number of repairs have gone up.

"There is currently a pretty serious supply shortage on inventory all across the board for bicycles, bicycle parts, so lead time now for getting people bikes is quite extended," said Pueschner.

He explained that it could be a few weeks to a year on receiving a bike. Certain styles of bikes have been selling more than they have in the past, Pueschner explained. Mountain Bike sales have increased with the addition of Gateway Trails on Grandad's Bluff.

"I don't think this bike movement is going to slow down. We don't have a huge inventory at the moment. We have a lot of bikes on order and more bikes coming in more often," said Pueschner.

He said this summer they expect more bikes to be coming in so more people can enjoy the outdoors. While outdoor activities continue to rise, Chris Hardie said they expect to see tourism numbers back up as well.

"There is pent up demand for tourism. There are going to be a lot of folks that want to do some things that had to suspend their travel plans last year because of the pandemic," said Hardie.

He said the latest survey done by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, found that 87% of people have travel plans within the next six months. With that, Hardie said they also found that most people are planning on driving to their destinations rather than fly. Half of the people also said it's important that the place they are traveling to follows COVID protocol.

"Making our tourists feel safe is important to getting them to come and spend money in our region," said Hardie.

He explained that tourism is crucial for many small businesses and cities to survive.

"So many of our small businesses do rely on that outside spending that comes in. People come to our region, they stay overnight, they are going to bars, visiting local attractions, visiting wineries and breweries. All of those are important because that money when it's spent in our community, then it stays in our community by supporting those local small businesses who are owned by people in our community," said Hardie.

He said it's important to have recirculation of the dollars within the community. The other thing about tourism that Hardie said is often overlooked in economic development is that it's not as dependent on infrastructure.

As far as recovering from the last year goes, Hardie said we truly don't know yet how long it's going to take to get back to where many businesses and tourism numbers were before the pandemic.

"There were some businesses that were basically in complete shut down for almost a year and will they come back to where they were before? Maybe their business model has changed slightly because the pandemic has changed the way they need to approach business," said Hardie.

He said he does believe we will see a larger impact later in the year the summer due to the vaccination rates and many people feeling more comfortable with taking vacations.

"Businesses have made it this far are in it for the long haul and we certainly need a good year to see that they can come through the other end," said Hardie.

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Rylie Kyhn

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