The multimillion-dollar tourism industry is expected to get a boost this week with the three-day Memorial Day weekend and the opening of the muskie fishing season on North Woods lakes, but there is still some uncertainty what the impact will be due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By far the highlight of May tourism, Memorial Day weekend signals the start of the summer vacation season just around the corner. 

But because of people taking coronavirus precautions and Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer At Home orders, it’s anticipated summer tourism could get off to a slow start due to travel, business  and large group gathering restrictions.

That’s tough on area businesses, according to tourism officials, because figures released earlier this month by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism highlight the economic impact of travelers in Vilas and Oneida counties where tourists spent $482 million in 2019.

In addition to the three-day weekend for vacationers who traditionally visit the North Woods for community events or to open their cottage or summer home for the summer, many will come here to fish for muskies as the season opens this Saturday, May 23. 

Anglers are reminded fishing seasons are also open for all species of panfish, walleyes, northerns, largemouth bass and trout. The smallmouth bass season opens Saturday, June 20.

Impact in Vilas

Visitors spent over $241 million in Vilas County in 2019, according to figures released by the state Department of Tourism. That figure marks a $33 million growth in the county in the last six years alone.

Direct visitor spending reached $241.3 million in Vilas County last year, a 3.72% increase over the $232 million spent in 2018, according to the report.

“We hope these numbers help people understand just how vital tourism is to our area,” said Cindy Burzinski, director of Vilas County Tourism & Publicity. “Every hard-earned dollar spent here directly improves the lives of everyone who lives and works in Vilas County. We’re so grateful to our visitors, many of whom continue to return generation after generation.”

Tourism is Vilas County’s largest industry, supporting 2,081 jobs in 2018. County businesses also benefited from total business sales just shy of $310 million. Visitor spending in the county accounted for $23.9 million in state and local taxes last year alone.

Burzinski said she understands the pandemic has been hard on businesses this spring.

“Our gratitude to businesses has never been deeper, because we know there will be changes in the way people travel for a while,” said Burzinski. “Everyone is working hard to prepare to welcome visitors back in a way that allows them to feel safe and confident in choosing Vilas County, when it is safe to travel again.”

Burzinski added that in  2020, Vilas County tourism leaders are looking forward to engaging more younger travelers as well, through improvements to the Map It Vilas County trails app, the addition of Instagram stories to its social media plan, and photo shoots aimed at highlighting assets that have proven popular with younger generations.


Oneida sees boost

Meanwhile, visitors spent $241.1 million in Oneida County in 2019, an increase of 1.57% over 2018 — a boost of $3.7 million year-to-year, according to Department of Tourism figures.

Tourism spending in  Oneida County has increased by more than $50 million since 2012, according to Collette Sorgel, president of the Oneida County Tourism Council (OCTC) and executive director of the Three Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Visitors are the lifeblood of our communities,” said Sorgel. “They help our local businesses thrive and keep our communities strong. We’re so grateful that people chose to spend their hard-earned dollars and vacation days here.”

Tourism accounted for 2,254 jobs in Oneida County in 2019, an increase of about 1% over the previous year. The county also collected $22.9 million in state and local taxes in 2019, taxes that otherwise would have been paid by Oneida County residents. 

Tourism directly supports one out of every 26 jobs in the state, though that number is higher in tourism destinations like Oneida County.

“The importance of tourism in the North Woods has never been clearer than it is right now,” Sorgel said. “As we look to navigate our way safely past the coronavirus pandemic, we are working with our chambers, our lodging properties and our businesses to make sure that when visitors are able to return, they can do so safely and confidently. We’re eager to get back on our feet and grateful to everyone who is anxious to return.”

New campaign

Tourism impacts the North Woods region as a whole, including Vilas, Oneida, Forest, Iron, Langlade, Lincoln and Price counties, due to the large number of lakes and public forests in the region.  Tourism in the seven counties brought in $647.7 million in 2019, an increase of 2.51% over 2018. 

That adds up to an additional $15.9 million for the popular vacation counties known as the North Woods of Wisconsin, according to Krystal Westfahl, chairwoman of The Northwoods of Wisconsin consortium and executive director of the Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce.

“These numbers show how absolutely essential tourism is to the northern part of the state,” said Westfahl. “It keeps our communities strong and our businesses healthy. Right now, we’re getting a glimpse now of what life could look like in the North Woods without tourism. It’s absolutely devastating for some of the people who live and work here. We need everyone’s support, from the state level, down to each loyal visitor, to protect and revitalize this area when it’s safe to travel again.”

More than 6,000 jobs in the seven counties rely on tourism. The seven counties also collected $64.2 million in state and local taxes in 2019, taxes that would otherwise have been put squarely on the shoulders of area residents.

“The money that residents save goes back into our communities. It’s what makes it possible for us to keep living and working and thriving here,” Westfahl said.

The Northwoods of Wisconsin group recently launched a new campaign to show support for their part of the state as travelers continue to navigate life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The campaign includes a new “We Love the Northwoods” icon that will be branded on social media posts, e-newsletters and websites from the partnering communities as a visible reflection of community pride. They’ve also launched a Facebook profile photo frame that allows users the chance to show their pride as well, along with a hashtag campaign, #WeLovetheNorthwoods, where travelers can share their photos on social media for other Up North aficionados to enjoy together.

The seven-county consortium also created, a hub site for towns to share community news, and recently applied for a state Joint Effort Marketing grant to help provide key advertising dollars to bring visitors to the area once nonessential travel is allowed again.

Statewide figures

Statewide, visitor spending reached $13.6 billion in 2019, a 2.62% increase over the $13.3 billion spent in 2018. Tourism in the Badger State also accounted for 202,217 jobs and $1.6 billion in state and local taxes collected.

Kim Emerson, executive director of the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, said the increase in tourism was noticed in Eagle River.  

“These numbers hold true for the Eagle River area as well; 2019 was a very good year for our area.  We saw growth,” said Emerson. “This continues to show that the Eagle River area is a great year- round family destination that we continue to showcase to everyone. It is a destination where you can relax, get a good dose of fresh air, enjoy wide open space and interact with the beautiful North Woods scenery.”