A Summer of Recovery: Tourism officials optimistic about increase in seasonal travel

Memorial Day weekend is a welcome sight to Wisconsin travel destinations.
Published: May. 31, 2021 at 6:00 AM CDT|Updated: May. 31, 2021 at 10:22 PM CDT
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WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. (WMTV) - Memorial Day marks the unofficial start to summer and the holiday is a welcome sight for tourist destinations. In an NBC15 Special Report airing Monday at 10 p.m., Gabriella Rusk takes a closer look at tourism in the state.

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The Wisconsin Department of Tourism says the summer travel outlook looks promising.

“If the pandemic taught us anything, it was the value of tourism as an economic driver for the state of Wisconsin,” says Anne Sayers, Acting Secretary of Tourism. “We know that travelers are looking to reconnect with friends and family, make up for some lost time, and get revenge on those missed plans from last year.”

In 2020, the state recorded a loss of about $3.9 billion dollars in direct visitor spending from tourism compared to 2019. In total business sales from tourism, a difference in nearly $4.9 billion dollars was noted from 2020 when compared to the previous year.

Despite the slow downturn, tourism officials remain optimistic. According to a consumer behavior study, vacations of two nights or more in the first few months of 2021 have already surpassed those of the same time frame in 2019, which was a record-setting year for Wisconsin travel.

As one of the top state travel destinations, the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau says there was about a 75% decline in visitor spending from spring 2019 to spring 2020.

During the summer months, officials report nearly a quarter of visitor spending lost last summer in the Dells when compared to those same summer months in 2019.

“There’s no making up for the dollars lost last year,” said Leah Hauck-Mills, a communications manager for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau. “This community relies heavily on visitors. Without them in 2020, it was a very challenging yet innovative year.”

Hauck-Mills says local tourism leaders are looking forward to the future with enthusiasm.

“It’s really exciting to have positivity heading into this summer,” said Hauck-Mills. “Business owners definitely need that and visitors need that as well.”


The Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau reports that the local hospitality industry is seeing stable numbers from spring break keep steady into late April and early May of this year.

“I know a lot of the hotels and resorts are seeing really strong bookings for the year,” said Hauck-Mills.

Wilderness Resort is reporting a 50 percent increase in bookings for this summer compared to the previous one.

“I think there’s a real excitement in the Dells community about having tourists come back to our town,” said Fendos. “It’s what we live and breathe for.”

Fendos says there was a certain emptiness in the area during the summer months of 2020.

At Kalahari Resorts and Conventions, bookings are also up significantly.

“We were obviously open some last summer and we were busy, but I don’t think it’s anything like we’re going to see this summer,” said John Chastan, the General Manager of Kalahari Resorts and Conventions Wisconsin Dells.

Those in the hospitality industry say the uptick in guests is because people are eager to return to seasonal traditions.

“Everyone’s excited about getting out of the house and doing a normal, summer family vacation,” said Chastan.


A Wisconsin Dells staple, the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski Show, closed its doors for good last year. President Tom Diehl says the show will not return, even with the promising signs of tourism.

“It’s not the way I wanted to go out after 54 years or the show at 70 years,” said Diehl, Tommy Bartlett Inc. owner and President of the Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions.

Diehl says to bring the show back would be fiscally impossible. The Tommy Bartlett Water Ski Show has faced a number of financial hurdles dating back to the economic downturn of 2008.

“It’s just unfortunate that it had to happen,” said Diehl. “There’s no way we could have played to 2,000 people a day in 2021. It’s just an impossibility.”

The Tommy Bartlett Exploratory does remain open to visitors.


Tourism success in the Dells also means a boost to nearby local economies. In the past few years, Downtown Baraboo has seen more visitors drive over from the Wisconsin Dells to enjoy restaurants, Devil’s Lake State Park, and shopping.

Lacey Steffes, the President of Downtown Baraboo, says 2020 was a relatively good year for tourism in the area.

“We saw a lot of people coming out of Dane County just because of the COVID restrictions,” said Steffes. “There were a lot of day trips and so I anticipate more of that.”

So far this year, Steffes says local overnight stays are increasing too.

“The hotels locally are reporting above average numbers,” said Steffes. “I keep hearing that we’re seeing mid-summer numbers in April and we have continued to see that kind of foot traffic.”


Hospitality and tourism experts say that declining COVID-19 case numbers and an increase in vaccinations is giving visitors confidence in making summer travel plans.

“In the tourism industry, safety is the number one issue,” said Diehl. “People will not go where they don’t feel safe and secure.”

Resorts are noticing guests feeling more comfortable being out and about too.

“They’re still conscious and they’re still looking for hand sanitizer stations,” said Fendos. “I hope our world continues to be safety conscious in that regard.”

Local tourism officials say with the increased demand, visitors will have to exercise some patience.

“Plan ahead,” recommends Hauck-Mills. “The pent-up demand is really high this year so we can expect increased crowds and things like that.”

She says guests should try to book reservations or order tickets online to save time waiting in line.

“It’s really exciting to have that positivity heading into this summer,” said Hauck-Mills. “Business owners definitely need that and visitors need that as well.”

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