Officials from Tuscola, Huron, Sanilac and four other counties are intent on increasing the area’s tourism business, and doing more than just talking about it.
The I-69 Thumb Region — a group of seven counties generally located north of I-69 — held its first official “ecotourism” planning session last week in Lapeer.
Next steps include holding an ecotourism symposium in May, creating a regional directory of businesses and attractions to give tourists an easier way to find them, and providing grants to help support the efforts.
The overall hope is to draw attention to the area’s abundant natural resources and agriculture-based businesses to improve the region’s 6 percent share of Michigan’s so-called “leisure travel market”, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
“Ecotourism is really designed to spawn local economic benefits in a sustainable manner,” said Andy Northrop, Extension Educator, Sustainable Tourism, Community Economic Development, and Greening Michigan Institute with the Michigan State University-Extension.
The 22-member group was well-represented by Tuscola and Huron counties.
• Steve Erickson, executive director, Tuscola County Economic Development Corp.
• Tuscola County Commissioners Craig Kirkpatrick and Tom Young
• Russ Fall, a member of the Vassar Township Parks & Rec committee
• Nancy Barrios, a volunteer with the Cass River Greenways
• Jim McCloskey, district representative for Michigan Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville
• Carl Osentoski, executive director, Huron County Economic Development Corp.
Other representatives were from Sanilac, Genesee, Shiawassee, St. Clair, and Lapeer counties, along with University of Michigan-Flint, and Michigan State University-Extension.
The intent was to form the framework of how the group will work to promote ecotourism in Michigan’s Region 6, which is part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Regional Prosperity Initiative program. Region 6 consists of the seven counties represented at the ecotourism meeting.
According to its website, the Regional Prosperity Initiative program “is a voluntary competitive grant process to encourage local private, public and non-profit partners to create vibrant regional economies. The legislature approved the recommended process and the Regional Prosperity Initiative was signed into law as a part of the FY 2014 budget (59 PA 2013).”
Until now, Region 6 — branded as the I-69 Thumb Region — has concentrated on economic development and education-related matters.
However, late in 2016, the steering committee decided to make tourism a priority. By vote, it was decided to focus on ecotourism.
Anna King Pinter, a planner with Genesee County Metropolitan Planning Commission who helped lead Wednesday’s session, pointed out that tourism is big business in Michigan.
She said about $2.4 billion in state and local revenue is generated annually, which equates to about $640 per household in Michigan.
However, just under 6 percent of the state’s “leisure travel” involves the Region 6 area.
That includes 68 percent of travelers to the area who are “day-trippers” and 76 percent who are travel group sizes of one or two people.
To show the potential for how those numbers could improve, Northrop presented figures from the “State of the American Traveler” that show different generations — Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millenials — all are activity seekers, nature lovers, and “exploration hungry.”
Northrop said the figures help make the case for focusing on ecotourism — a market that could grow to 25 percent of the global travel market within six years and account of $470 billion annually in revenue, according to the Center for Responsible Travel and Tourism.
Northrop helped define eco-tourism by listing several activities:
• Board sports
• Wildlife tours
• Ecological volunteering
Northrop put added emphasis on agritourism, which is defined by the Michigan Agritourism Association as “an agriculturally-based operation or activity that brings visitors to a farm or ranch and includes a wide variety of activities.”
Agritourism includes activities such as “breakfast on the farms”, pick your own (fruits/vegetables), farmers markets, food festivals, and harvesting, among others.
Northrop said the agritourism and ecotourism definitions for the Thumb region will be tailored to what it has to offer.
“This is by no means all activities, we can always add to this and perhaps we can debate whether some of these should even be on the list,” Northrop said.
The group briefly discussed whether or not hunting should be considered ecotourism, but Northrop said “that opens a can of worms,” and suggested that the efforts of the group should be focused on those activities included in the general definition of the term.
During the first meeting, attendees from Tuscola County stepped forward to offer initial thoughts about what the area could offer.
Vassar’s Russ Fall offered up the idea of potentially drawing attention to the many “hidden” trails on land in the area owned by the state (during non-hunting season).
Fall said he had recently discovered such a trail just a few miles from the home he has lived in for decades.
“It would be helpful to have these trails identified for people who like trail running, or trail walking,” he said.
Carl Osentoski pointed out that there may be some limitations to when and how such trails can be used, especially if it is funded by so-called “hunting money”, but the idea served as a launching point for other ideas.
Barrios offered the possibility of drawing people to the area for geocaching-based activities. Geocaching is a wildly popular hobby whereby participants use a Global Positioning System receiver or mobile device and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers, called “geocaches” or “caches”, at specific locations marked by coordinates all over the world — it’s kind of like a treasure hunt.
Jacob Maurer, a planner with Genesee County Metropolitan Planning Commission, said such ideas are the type the group will aim to discuss during the May symposium.
The hope is to have as many as 200 participants at the event (the date had not been set as of press time).
And Maurer said efforts already are underway to create a directory of ecotourism-based attractions in the area.
“We’d like to document these attractors, and that’s what you’ve got to think…what’s going to attract and bring people to your community?” he said.
Jacob Maurer and Anna King Pinter from the Genesee County Metropolitan Planning Commission can be reached at 810-257-3010.
MSU-E’s Northrop can be reached via email at [email protected]
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at [email protected]