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April 18, 2016 | By  | Crain’s Detroit Business

Michigan visitors, tourism spending expected to grow in 2016, researchers say

LANSING — Michigan is expected to have more visitors from out of state and around the mitten this year, according to new projections from Michigan State University researchers.

Travel to and within Michigan this year is anticipated to rise 3 percent compared to 2015, said Dan McCole, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Community Sustainability.

In addition, said McCole, tourism-related prices are expected to climb 3 percent and overall tourism spending should be up 5 percent this year, in spite of somewhat weaker economic conditions than a year ago.

McCole and Sarah Nicholls, an associate tourism professor at MSU, gave their annual state tourism outlook Monday during the Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Lansing.

Their rosy outlook is based on several factors, including declining unemployment, low gas prices and the state’s Pure Michigan marketing campaign.

But this year’s forecast also continues momentum the state’s tourism industry has experienced for several years.

“There’s really nothing in the economy to suggest that tourism will take a decline,” McCole said, adding that since the last economic recession, “people have prioritized travel over other things.”

That’s especially true among millennials, the generation born after 1980 that now tops the postwar baby boom generation in number. The oldest among them are in their early to mid-30s and, while still early in their careers, are starting to earn more money, McCole said.

Many of them prefer to spend money on experiences rather than things, he said. That, plus industry surveys that show people 55 and older are spending less on travel “is an indication that a torch is being passed.”

Millennial traits are showing up throughout the industry, he said. Younger travelers are more likely than older ones to use the shared economy, from lodging services like San Francisco, Calif.-based Airbnb Inc. to bike- and ride-sharing programs.

And their penchant for smartphones is changing how people travel, McCole said — from increased use for trip planning and bookings, to increased reliance on trip review websites, to a need for wireless internet access on the road.

“Smartphones actually are revolutionizing the tourism industry,” he said.

Tourism in Michigan in 2015

The researchers say they are hopeful these trends and generally favorable economic conditions will continue to attract visitors to Michigan, both to boost regional hotel rates and offset a drop in travelers from Canada.

The strong U.S. dollar has deterred some Canadian visitors to Michigan, Nicholls said. She added that the exchange rate fell 16.3 percent from Jan. 1, 2015 to Jan. 1, 2016, so that one Canadian dollar is now worth about 72 cents in the U.S.

That is reflected partially in 4.8 percent fewer trips by car made across the Ambassador Bridgelast year than in 2014, Nicholls’ data show. The Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron fared worse, with 15.4 percent fewer car trips in 2015.

In contrast, the Mackinac Bridge counted 3.9 million vehicle trips last year, a 7.4 percent increase from 2014, data show.

“Border cities and casinos will see the impact” of less Canadian traffic, Nicholls said.

But, she added: “Detroit is a different case because it’s our biggest city,” citing the presence of sports teams and other attractions that draw people there.

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