Canoeing and haggling: An early look at the summer 2009 tourism economy

Public Insight Editor Andrew Haeg files a post on the trip that has been this summer vacation season.

Just like everyone, we here at MinnEcon are loathe to admit that the summer’s coming to a close. But, when State Fair chatter ramps up you can no longer deny it.

So we thought it a good time to see how the state’s vacation economy has been faring over the summer. The prediction back in April from Explore Minnesota Tourism and from MinnEcon’s (now vacationing) Paul Tosto was that area businesses could benefit as more Minnesotans stuck around and took resort or canoe trips in their home state.

We just got a note from Public Insight Network member Belle Scott of Minneapolis telling us business is booming at her daughter’s resort on the Canadian border, and that she’d just returned from Door County where things were likewise bustling.

Scott’s anecdotal take is rosier than the emerging picture of the state’s summer tourism economy, which is mixed at best. “You show me one area of the state that’s doing well and I’ll show you one that’s not,” says John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism.

Results of their formal member survey are due out mid-next week. Edman says he’s hearing that campsites, festivals and county fairs are doing well this year. “You’re seeing a lot of people discover things in their own backyards and neighborhoods,” he says. What’s not doing well are big resorts, Twin Cities hotels and facilities that depend on conventions or big groups. He’s heard many reports of families making rare last-minute resort reservations, and even talk of widespread haggling (e.g. “Come on, you can do better than that!”), which he says almost never happens.

In general, Edman says cheap, simple and close-to-home are the themes of this summer. One of the beneficiaries of this confluence of trends is Public Insight Network source Sue Ahrendt, who (along with her husband) runs Tuscarora Canoe, a Boundary Waters-area outfitter based in Grand Marais. She’s also behind a new project called Becoming a Boundary Waters Family, which is designed to bring more young families to the Boundary Waters. She’s not sure whether to credit the strong summer to that initiative, to the recession encouraging more families to take cheaper, simpler vacations, or to the increasing awareness of “nature-deficit disorder” as highlighted in the popular book “Last Child in the Woods.” All Ahrendt knows is that she’s never seen so many young families paddling into the wilderness.

Ahrendt charges a family of four anywhere from $300 to $800 for a three-day canoe trip (depending on how much gear they need). It’s easier and cheaper than heading to Lake Wallenpaupack or enduring 1,500 miles of squabbling, DVDs and road games to get to Disney World.

That, at least, is the notion that gets families excited when Ahrendt pitches at sports shows. But, Ahrendt says, something even better happens in the woods. One family of four emerged after a rain-soaked, buggy weekend spent mainly in their tent. Ahrendt feared they’d had a rough time of it. The kids went off and got some ice cream and, when they came back, looked up at their father and said, “Daddy, we never knew you could laugh so hard.”

We’d love to hear your stories about how the summer vacation went. Did you haggle? Were crowds bigger or smaller than normal? Did you discover something new in your own backyard?

Tell us here.

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