Tourism continues to be an economic driver across northern Wisconsin, generating millions of dollars for local businesses and creating thousands of jobs. In the three counties of Florence, Marinette and Oconto, tourists spent nearly $200 million in 2009. That spending created more than 4,600 jobs.
Tourism is the second biggest industry after manufacturing in Marinette County, says Jamie Darge, Marinette tourism director for the Marinette-Menominee Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Winter tourism makes up between 30 and 40 percent of our annual total. It starts with hunting season and rolls all winter long as people come up to ice fish, snowmobile and ski,” she says.
Marinette and its neighboring counties of Oconto and Florence draw people because “it’s what you envision the Northwoods to be. We’re not heavily commercialized. We have family-run businesses that are friendly and you can find what you’re looking for,” Darge says.
With more than 600 miles of snowmobile trails and 200,000 acres of hunting land, Marinette County also has plenty of room for visitors looking to escape and get away from it all, Darge says. “You’re not elbowed in,” she says.
In Florence County, tourism is the No. 1 industry, says tourism director Lori Moore. More than 60 percent of the county’s land is open for public hunting and other recreation needs, which during the winter months include snowmobiling, ATV riding and UTV riding. (Florence is one of the few counties in the state where UTVs – utility trail vehicles – are allowed on trails)
“There are hunting opportunities galore in Florence County and the snowmobilers provide us with a wonderful winter weather tourism season,” she says.
The recession didn’t keep travelers at home, but many brought more of their own supplies and ate more at their cabins, skipping local eateries, Moore says. “The stays have been shorter, too.”
Much like in neighboring Marinette County, the area’s natural beauty is what draws visitors. Florence County is home to two of the state’s three wild rivers – rivers that are untouched by development – and there is plenty of public land available for hunting. “We have a lot of untouched beauty and people enjoy that, whether they are fishing, tubing or out in a kayak. It’s just so peaceful,” says Moore, adding that most visitors come from southern Wisconsin or Minnesota.
Moore oversees the county’s tourism industry from the Florence Wild Rivers Interpretative Center. While the building houses the DNR, UW-Extension and other agencies, it’s also home to several exhibits on the area, including a new warm water aquarium that will showcase native fish.
Home to 139,000 acres of the Nicolet National Forest, Oconto County also has plenty of room for outdoor visitors to enjoy themselves. The county alone has 49 miles of cross-country skiing trails and 425 miles of snowmobile trails.
The northern counties draw a lot of tourists from the Chicago area and along the Interstate 43 and Interstate 94 corridors, says Marinette County’s Darge.
“A lot of the appeal is that this is how people imagine ‘up north’ being and you won’t find the same friendly, cozy atmosphere where people wave to you on the street in the cities,” she says.