Winter tourism expands in the eastern U.P.

Michigan State Roundup

Published April 1, 1993  | April 1993 issue

While eastern Upper Peninsula (U.P.) attractions, such as Mackinac Island, traditionally draw large numbers of summer visitors, winter tourism is making an impact on the region's economy.

Although winter tourism in the western U.P., which has always been an economic mainstay, centers around downhill skiing, tourism on the eastern side centers on snowmobiling and cross country skiing.

"There's been a real resurgence in snowmobiling, and the U.P. is a snowmobiler's paradise," says Janet Peterson, executive secretary of the St. Ignace Chamber of Commerce. Mid-February international snowmobile drag races held 30 miles away in tiny Cedarville drew over 700 entrants, and St. Ignace's motels reaped some of the benefits. About 15 of the 50 motels and resorts in the St. Ignace area stay open in winter, but the 12 open in town were very busy, Peterson says.

For the past two to three years, the three chain motels in town have stayed open and have seen business grow. One local motel owner reported up to three times the number of overall room reservations this winter over last, according to Peterson. And he admitted that business might have been even better if all his units were open for winter occupancy.

"This is the third year of winter advertising for St. Ignace," Peterson says. And she is convinced that efforts to promote winter activities are paying off. When the city held its first dogsled race in January, it drew 41 sled teams. And the success of that first race ensures that it will be an annual event, Peterson says "Dogsled racing is growing in popularity as a spectator sport."

Across the bridge from St. Ignace is Mackinac Island, a prominent summer vacation area that boasts about 1 million visitors annually. While many of the island's hotels, such as the Grand Hotel, are seasonal, every year more businesses and hotels are staying open through the winter, says Jennifer Defoe, Mackinac Chamber of Commerce.

Although no motorized vehicles are allowed on Mackinac Island in the summer, snowmobiles are exempt in winter. When the weather cooperates, snowmobilers can ride across an ice bridge between St. Ignace and the island. The Mackinac Bridge Authority also transports winter visitors and their snowmobiles to the island.

The 39-suite Lilac Tree Hotel, which opened in July 1991 and is the first new hotel on the island in 70 years, was booked to capacity this past winter over the holidays and on weekends.

Summer tourism will continue to be the island's mainstay, but interest in Mackinac's winter attractions is clearly growing, Defoe says.

Diane Wells