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Greater Wausau: Our View: Tourism growth effects are far-reaching

8:18 AM, May 9, 2013  |  Comments
Jake Anderson, 22, left, and Jake Halvorsen, 15, both of Wausau, enjoy skiing at the Granite Peak Ski Area in Rib Mountain.
Jake Anderson, 22, left, and Jake Halvorsen, 15, both of Wausau, enjoy skiing at the Granite Peak Ski Area in Rib Mountain.
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A tourism summit at Dale's Weston Lanes on Tuesday contained a whole bunch of nuggets of news from local institutions:

? Wausau Area Events will change its name to Wausau Events and will rebrand and expand some of its events.

? The Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention & Visitors Bureau was named the top visitors bureau with a budget of less than $200,000 in the nation.

? The Robert W. Monk Gardens, Bull Falls Brewery and the Marathon County Historical Society each have new initiatives, exhibits or hours.

But it's necessary to step back and look at the big picture to understand the biggest news that's going on here, which is that there is real and measurable growth in the tourism industry in north central Wisconsin and the state as a whole.

That growth is a big deal. Not only is tourism a huge and important economic sector, but recovery within that sector here has lagged behind other sectors, for example manufacturing.

An economic analysis last fall by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center on Wisconsin Strategy found that the tourism industry as a whole was still stagnant or losing jobs in 2011 and early 2012. Clearly the recession made people extremely careful with what disposable income they retained, and even as families regrouped and companies bounced back from the low points in 2009, folks' vacation habits changed and, in some cases, stayed changed.

We had been hearing from people in the industry that 2012 saw real and significant growth, and the new figures prove that it's true.

Marathon County alone collected $217.2 million in direct visitor spending last year, an increase of nearly 6 percent over 2011 and a strong enough performance to put Marathon County in the state's top 10 counties for tourism. And the state experienced significant growth, too, from $16 billion in 2011 to $16.5 billion in 2012.

Tourism is important for more than just the economy; it's important for quality of life. We go places and see sights because we all sometimes need a break from our daily routines. A healthy tourism trade doesn't just mean more jobs for Wisconsinites - though those jobs are hugely important. It also signals something about our collective psychology. If we're taking vacations, we probably feel more secure, less unsettled. Happier.

We've highlighted positive signs of economic growth in our last two editorials. We don't mean to imply that there aren't real challenges remaining, or that the recovery is helping all of us equally. There are and it isn't. Even in tourism, there were big events here in 2012 - the international kayak/canoe championships, for example - that won't be replicated this year. There's no free ride, in short, and no time for anyone to rest on their laurels.

But that doesn't make the big-picture impact of this growth any less important, or exciting. The statewide story is a big deal, and the fact that Marathon County grew at nearly twice the pace of the state as a whole is something that we can really feel proud of - and something that will help buoy the whole community.

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