Tourism key to Door County economy

Vacationers have been flocking to Door County for more than a century to enjoy its beaches, forests, sunsets, inns, fruit, ice cream and more.

Those travelers have made tourism the dominant economic force in the county, accounting for more than $313 million in direct spending in 2014. That was an increase of nearly $15 million, or roughly 5 percent over the previous year, according to Door County Visitor Bureau spokesman Jon Jarosh.

He said 2014 marked the sixth consecutive year of growth in annual tourism spending – up $56.3 million, or 21.9 percent, since 2009. That was the first year all 19 of Door County’s municipalities were part of the Door County Tourism Zone. Room tax collections increased 26.1 percent during that period, from $3.02 million in 2009 to $3.81 million last year.

With a population of just 27,000 residents, Door County ranked eighth in visitor spending out of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, according to state figures. The overall economic impact of tourism was $11.4 billion last year, up 5.3 over 2013, the study said.

Jarosh called the 3,029 jobs in Door County supported by tourism last year a “remarkable figure” and said the employment generated $66.3 million in labor income in 2014. Tourism also produced $34 million in state and local taxes, an increase of $1.5 million, or 4.65 percent, over 2013, he added.

He said he expects 2015 to be another strong year for tourism in the county, which continues to rely on its natural beauty to draw visitors from around Wisconsin, the Midwest and the remainder of the country.

Jarosh said the Door County Visitor Bureau was founded in 1891, in response to a tourism industry that had been growing for several decades.

“It had reached the point where business owners got together and decided they needed to form a group to promote our area, so it’s been going on for more than 120 years,” he said. “Though there were other inns before it, but the longest continually operated hotel in the county is Fish Creek’s White Gull Inn, which opened in 1896 and is still going strong.”

The largest group of visitors to the county come from within Wisconsin, Jarosh said, but Chicago and its suburbs in northern Illinois account for the second largest chunk, around 30 percent.

“The last big study we had showed that the Illinois figure is a little higher on certain holidays, such as Columbus Day because it’s a paid holiday in Illinois, but not in Wisconsin,” he said. “We see more Illinois license plates then.”

Jarosh said tourism officials were pleased that spending continued to increase during the recession, though the figures did not rise as much as they had hoped.

“We did well compared to other destinations around the country, where travel spending numbers dropped 10 to 15 percent,” he said. “Primarily, we are a leisure destination, so we didn’t have a lot of the business meeting and conference traffic that fell off a lot of places. That helped to insulate us somewhat here.”

Jarosh said the increased marketing budget that came from the room tax also produced benefits for the county.

“Prior to 2007, we were privately funded and didn’t receive any kind of tax dollars in any way, shape or form,” he said “Primarily, we got our money through membership dues and also through any profits we got from products we sold to our members. Our visitor guide was one of those key items.”

After decades of resistance, the first 11 of 19 municipalities began collecting a room tax in 2007, he said. Two years late, all 19 municipalities in the county were on board and pooling their money to promote the county as a single destination.

“As a result, our budget increased dramatically, giving us a lot more marketing,” Jarosh said. “That played a big part in us not losing ground during the recession. “

The bureau now spends $2.5 million annually to promote the peninsula, up from $250,000 a year prior to 2007, he said.

Not surprisingly, Jarosh said the bulk of the county’s visitors arrive in the summer. Fall is next because of the vibrant colors in the changing leaves. Spring is third, while winter is a quiet time for the peninsula. The region is popular with couples as a getaway, he said, with only 30 percent of the vacationers bringing children with them in the summer, according to a recent survey.

“That was a bit of a surprise,” Jarosh said. “We know that in the shoulder seasons there are a lot of adults. And in the summer, you see a lot of families cruising around. But mid-August, that declines because school activities are beginning. It’s also a time when college kids are going back to school, so that’s when businesses get a little thin in the help area.”

Jarosh said vacations have gotten shorter over the past few decades, with the typical Door County trip now running three or four nights. Families or groups that rent homes or cabins tend to stay longer in the summer, however, because those kinds of rentals often have a one-week minimum.

Jarosh said new businesses pop up from time to time on the peninsula, including a new canopy tour and zip line company in Baileys Harbor this summer. And he noted that the 1,600-acre Ridges Sanctuary – which has been around since 1937 – is opening a new interpretive center this summer on the north end of Baileys Harbor.

Surveys show that is the natural beauty of Door County that brings many people back to the peninsula year after year. And that is something residents and visitor bureau leaders alike want to preserve, Jarosh said.

“We don’t really have a ton of changes and we struggle with that a bit,” he said. “A lot of the places older people went to as kids are still here. We don’t have any new amusement parks. But we do have restaurants like Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, which has been here since 1906. People can take their grandkids, get a cone, put a quarter in the juke box and have the same experience they did years ago.”

He said the bureau is pushing sustainability to protect the peninsula’s biggest draw.

“We want to grow in a responsible way,” he said. “If we did it wrong, it might attract more people to Door County – but ruin what people love about the peninsula. We want to market in a responsible way, so that 50 or 100 years from now, there will be feeling of rural bucolic destination that people enjoyed 50 years ago.”

Jarosh cited an extensive National Geographic article from 1969 that touted the county’s natural beauty.

“It’s fascinating to read that story,” he said. “So much of what made Door County special back then is what continues to make it charming in 2015. That’s the key to us – move to future but hold onto what is unique and distinctive about our destination.”

— By Brian E. Clark