By John E. SorensonWISCONSIN — The travel industry in Wisconsin is a $2.4 billion industry, accounting for almost half of the state’s total economic output.
With the state reeling from its third-straight recession, the economy is expected to shrink by more than 6 percent this year.
Travel is a key driver for economic activity, but not everyone is on board with the state expanding the number of its holiday destinations beyond what’s already been planned.
Travel groups in the state are raising concerns about what they see as a widening gap between expectations and reality, especially when it comes to getting people to visit the state.
“I think a lot of the concerns around Wisconsin tourism and the economy have been exaggerated,” said Michael Sorensen, president of the Wisconsin Travel Association.
“If we look at the travel industry as a whole, it’s still in the very, very good position to provide a lot more than it does right now.”
Wisconsin tourism industry spokesman Greg Ritter said he doesn’t know of any specific plans from the state to expand beyond what already is planned.
The state has about 2,000 vacation sites and an estimated 1,500 hotels, but the number is likely to be closer to 10,000 to 12,000.
“We’re definitely looking at it as a possibility,” he said.
Wisconsin is among the most populous states in the nation, and it’s a major hub for international travelers, including those from Europe.
More than $4 billion in business travel was booked last year, and Wisconsin is the largest exporter of business travel in the country.
The majority of the tourism industry’s revenue comes from sales to residents and businesses, which includes hotels, motels and apartments.
Tourism groups in Wisconsin are raising concern about what, if any, plans are in place for expanding beyond what is already planned.
“I don’t think we can put our finger on what’s being done in terms of how we’re going to fill the tourism void,” said Rob Anderson, president and CEO of Wisconsin Tourism Partners.
“It’s not just that there are a lot fewer of us.
We’re going through a tough economic times.”
Tourism experts said there is a lack of clarity about how to expand outside of what the state has already planned, especially as the number and type of destinations and their size continues to grow.
“There’s a lot that has to be done, and we don’t really have any definitive plans yet,” said Dave Goss, executive director of the Association of Travel Agencies.
“What we’re saying is, let’s start with the idea of making sure we get the people to Wisconsin.
Let’s do that by providing the right things to do in Wisconsin, by making sure the state gets the right infrastructure, by getting people in Wisconsin to do their job and make the best of what’s going on.”
While the tourism and hotel industry has been vocal in its concerns, a state law that took effect in June allows hotels to sell up to 10 nights in a hotel room, and there are some exceptions to the rule.
The law allows for up to two hotel rooms per person, but allows for a maximum of four hotel rooms to be rented out per household.
Travel groups in New York are also concerned about the potential of a shortage of hotel rooms in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin ranks as the sixth-most-visited state, according to data from TripAdvisor, and the Wisconsin Tourism Association estimates that there is an average of 1,700 visitors per day to the state and that about 1,400 are tourists.
The association believes that the demand is outstripping supply, and a recent report by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. suggested that Wisconsin could lose up to 40 percent of its hotel rooms during the holiday season.
Wisconsin has also been hit hard by the Great Recession, with unemployment at more than 14 percent in December, and with a national recession expected to hit the state for the first time this year, it may not be able to absorb the number in the coming months.
“We have no idea how many hotel rooms are coming on the market or what kind of demand we’ll see,” said Sorenesen.
“But if there’s an issue like that that’s a concern, let the industry know.”
Goss said that the hotel industry in the city of Madison is seeing a surge in demand for the state, which is not surprising given that Madison is the state capital.
“Madison has been a good base for us to be able grow the tourism economy,” he added.
“The state is not going to do everything, but it is a major tourism hub and the city has seen tremendous growth and we want to help support that,” said Goss.
“The travel industry has always been very critical to Madison, and I think they are going to be even more critical in the next few years.”
Travel groups and industry leaders in the tourism business in Wisconsin said they believe the current economic conditions and the