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New Normal: Tourism sees a rebound in northern Michigan

The Lady Michigan glass bottom boat goes under a drawbridge in Alpena, Michigan.
Ben Ackley
The Lady Michigan glass bottom boat passes through a drawbridge in Alpena, Michigan. Captain Spencer Cootware says he’s noticed more boats on the water during the cruises.

Some of the biggest tourist attractions in Alpena lie beneath the waves.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary holds an estimated 200 shipwrecks. Some of them are mere miles from shore, making them accessible to everyday people.

The sanctuary often tops lists of “Things to Do in Alpena,” a town of 10,000 that sits over an hour from the interstate.

When open, the visitor’s center alone attracts almost 100,000 people per year.

Spencer Cootware is the 100 Ton Master Captain of the Lady Michigan, a glass bottom boat which runs shipwreck tours in the sanctuary.

He said people may have discovered Alpena because of the pandemic.

“Even at half capacity, we were still full, because everybody, of course, that were going on vacation during the summer of covid came north,” Cootware said. “They weren’t leaving Michigan, so this area was kind of discovered by southern Michigan.”

Cootware also noticed more boats on the water during his cruises, as boaters have come to appreciate Alpena.

“Y’know, everybody used to say that they did not wanna make the nine mile trek into our marina,” Cootware said. Now they’re doing it, because they realize our marina is right next to the city, so they can dock their boat and walk into town.”

Alpena has historically attracted outdoorsmen. and the pandemic has inspired a lot of people to take to nature for solace and isolation.

Mary Beth Stutzman is president of the Alpena Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

She said the area attracts people who want to get away and explore the state during the pandemic.

“Honestly, we were positioned very favorably for a comeback from this type of experience because people have been looking for places that are less crowded, places that are off the beaten path, places they can get to easily by car,” Stutzman said.

According to Stutzman, in June, overnight occupancy rates increased by 43% this year compared to 2019. She also said Alpena’s tourism could have another year of growth in spite of a lackluster 2020.

Stutzman thinks people’s restlessness due to pandemic travel restrictions and lockdowns has helped Alpena recover quickly, but she doesn’t attribute all of the growth to that.

“There might be a little bit of a speed-up in things, I think things are recovering a little bit faster than what we expected,” Stutzman said. “But I think that really speaks to what it takes to get a community out there so that people know it exists, and then have them inspired by it enough to take a trip.”

About 100 miles west, on the other side of the mitten, Petoskey is another town that’s seen an increase in tourism. Their overnight occupancy in June was up 2% over 2019.

The Visitor’s Bureau said it was a “good June, and it’s been a great July.”

Nikki Devitt is president of the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce.

She said northern Michigan is benefiting from stimulus money and people’s need for an escape.

“People are clamoring for connection, to get out, to restart their lives, and they have the financial means, many of them, to kind of take that extra step and maybe take an extra couple days for vacation, so I think that’s a lot of what we’re seeing,” Devitt said. “This is the good part of the economic after effects of being shut down for so long.”

A lot of places in Alpena and Petoskey are busier now than they were last year, and the numbers show they may be even busier than they were in 2019.

The unknown, Devitt says, is if the change will be long lasting.

“We know that people’s buying habits have changed, people’s work habits have changed, everything has changed because of COVID, so to see whether or not — and how long — this type of elevated tourism traffic lasts, I think is just one of those things,” Devitt said. “It remains to be seen.”

Devitt says a lot of businesses showed resilience during COVID shutdowns. Pandemic-spawned strategies — like small businesses taking online orders — may help sustain growth from this summer into the future.