State, local tourism had banner year in 2019

Industry braces for huge drop in 2020 due to COVID-19

Milwaukee skyline
Milwaukee skyline

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, tourism in Milwaukee and across the state had been on the upswing.

In 2019, 113 million visitor trips in Wisconsin generated an estimated $13.7 billion, compared to $13.3 billion in 2018. Direct visitor spending in the greater Milwaukee area last year totaled $3.3 billion, compared to $3.2 billion in 2018.

That’s according to the annual impact study released Monday by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. The study, conducted by Tourism Economics, estimated tourism had a $22.2 billion impact on the state’s economy, making 2019 the biggest year in at least a decade.

Before COVID-19 took hold, this year had been projected to be even bigger than last for both the region and state, with a packed calendar including the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee and the 2020 Ryder Cup in Sheboygan County as headliners.

Those two events are still scheduled to take place, in August and September respectively, but local tourism officials anticipate the crowds and impact to be less than what was originally expected due to public safety measures.

As the largest tourism market in the state, Milwaukee accounts for 20 percent of Wisconsin’s total tourism economic impact, according to VISIT Milwaukee.

Tourism supported 53,238 full-time jobs in greater Milwaukee last year, a 1.6% increase from 2018. Across the state, tourism supported 202,217 full- and part-time jobs. In addition, state and local taxes generated from area tourism totaled $389 million.

Milwaukee County’s tourism market in 2019 also experienced year-over-year growth in direct visitor spending, jobs, labor income, tax revenue and total business sales.

“We know that 2020 will not look like 2019,” said state tourism secretary designee Sara Meaney in a statement. “But the good news is that on the heels of a record year for Wisconsin travel and tourism, the state has shown itself to be an increasingly sought-after destination, which gives the department confidence that it remains on the radar as a preferred destination for visitors.”

While travel has halted due to government restrictions and safer-at-home-orders, the department has been working to keep Wisconsin top of mind for travelers planning post-quarantine trips.

Wisconsin’s tourism industry lost an estimated $642 million in travel spending from March 7 to April 4 due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, according to recent data from the U.S. Travel Association.

In mid-April, Coronavirus-related cancellations of events booked by VISIT Milwaukee had so far resulted in an estimated $47 million economic loss for the region, said president and chief executive officer Peggy Williams-Smith

As of May 1, 54 events in the Milwaukee area have been canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to VISIT Milwaukee’s running list of confirmed cancellations and postponements.

WDT last year saw a return of $8 in local and state tax revenue on every one dollar spent on promoting Wisconsin as a travel destination.

Because of its high return rate, Meaney said continuing to invest in tourism will ultimately help support the state’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 public health crisis.

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer started as an intern reporter at BizTimes in summer 2015. She currently covers entertainment, sports, tourism and restaurants. In May 2017, she graduated with a journalism degree from Marquette University where she worked as an in-depth projects reporter for the Marquette Wire and Marquette Tribune.