Gov. Tony Evers announced an $8 million grant program aimed at helping the Wisconsin tourism industry amid a decline in tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic on Sept. 14.
The Tourism Relief to Accelerate Vitality and Economic Lift (TRAVEL) stimulus grant program will be funded through the CARES Act.
“The tourism industry is among the hardest hit by COVID-19,” said Evers in a press release. “The TRAVEL grants are designed to sustain local operations, staffing and relief stimulus activities to drive immediate spending and reinforce safe travel in support of local businesses across the state.”
Department of Tourism Secretary-designee Sara Meaney also supported the funding.
“While these grants will provide immediate opportunities to sustain the important economic development activities of tourism organizations, they will also fuel Wisconsin’s economic recovery in every sector that tourism touches,” Meaney said in Evers’ statement.
Funds to support ongoing operations impacted by COVID-19 will be available as well as marketing funds to promote an increase in safe tourism during the pandemic. Long-term operations not related to the pandemic will not be eligible for the grant.
Wisconsin’s tourism industry brings in a fair amount of revenue as well as job stability for the state. Over 100 million visits in 2019 generated about $22.2 billion. In 2019, 202,217 Wisconsinites were employed in the tourism industry. One in 18 jobs in the state were supported by tourism in 2019, according to the Department of Tourism.
Door County ranks eighth in Wisconsin for direct visitor spending. In 2019, visitors directly spent $374.4 million dollars in the region. 3,255 people were employed in the tourism industry in the region in 2019, according to Department of Tourism data.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation noted a decrease in traffic in Door County, a major tourist destination, this year. State Highway 57, which many travelers pass while driving to Door County, saw 36 percent fewer vehicles in April 2020 versus April 2019.
But although tourism might have been down amid the pandemic, the county saw increased interest in outdoor recreation compared to previous years.
“While we have certainly had our share of challenges this year like most travel destinations, our outdoor recreation opportunities and proximity to a large percentage of the Midwest’s population that are within a gas tank away of Door County likely prevented us from seeing some of the larger declines other destinations have reported,” Jon Jarosh, Destination Door County Director of Communications and Public Relations, said in an email.
However, some Door County business owners have struggled with finances due to the pandemic. Jarosh added that businesses have made adjustments to deal with safety issues and health protocols.
“In some cases, indoor customer capacity constraints have reduced the number of visitors inside of businesses,” Jarosh said.
With fall foliage just around the corner, Northern Wisconsin is expecting an increase in visitors. According to the DNR, peak fall color usually occurs in far northern Wisconsin during the last week of September and first week of October.
"With a 17-million-acre forest resource in Wisconsin that is increasing in volume each year, fall color is one show that must go on," said Colleen Matula, a forest silviculturist/ecologist with the DNR division of forestry.
Jarosh said that Door County is preparing for fall visitors just as it did in summer.
“When travel restrictions were lifted and travel was allowed to commence just before Memorial Day weekend, our industry was pretty well prepared,” said Jarosh. “It’s been a pretty busy summer in terms of tourism, so we are just rolling into the autumn season with the same approaches still in place.”
The Department of Tourism will accept applications for the grant program through 4 p.m. on Sept. 28 with those accepted to be announced mid-October.
Grants are based on financial need and will not exceed $500,000 or the applicant’s average tourism promotion and development budget over the past three years. Tourism-focused government or private organizations, including registered nonprofits, are eligible.
state news writer