Embracing 21st-century international tourism in Michigan: Part 1

The facts and figures and interests of international tourists visiting the Great Lakes State.

When relocating back to Michigan nearly 9 months ago after living overseas for more than a decade, I did not give much thought to where Michigan’s tourism industry was headed economically and culturally. As a U.S. citizen living overseas in countries like South Korea, Thailand and areas of Central America, one immediately notices the multiculturalism that exists within these countries and their ability to accommodate a large percentage of international visitors from all over the world. Eventually, I began to question and compare the rest of the world with the one I left in early 2001. Much to my surprise and liking, Michigan (and the United States) are on a rebound and, for Michigan, tourism is embraced as a strategy for economic development. This means more than just dollars coming in though, a cultural shift is in effect and will be for some time to come.

As we progress into the second decade of the 21st century the Pure Michigan campaign and the team of professionals responsible for its success know that it is not just Michiganders that will sustain the industry, but international tourists as well. Michigan has long been a tourism state for Michiganders, out-of-staters, and the occasional foreign visitors. However, as of the first quarter of 2013, Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) has received a 8.6 percent increase in international traffic from either side of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. According to Tom Naughton, CEO of Wayne County Airport Authority, international passengers spend more and stay longer and, in fact, “last year, foreign visitors spent a record-breaking $168 billion during their U.S. travel.” With areas of Asia becoming an economic powerhouse, the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese are a primary attraction to Michigan’s tourism industry. According to MLive, the United States hosted nearly 1.5 million Chinese tourists that spent close to $8.8 billion dollars in 2012. In addition to Asia, Western European countries, such as Germany and the U.K., are not being overlooked either. Brazil, with its growing middle-class and 21st-century economy, is even getting serious attention from the Obama Administration and reducing the waiting period for travel visas to the USA.

What does all this mean for Michigan?

The opportunities (and challenges) are quite clear: Michigan communities have the opportunity to engage and explore new areas of the tourism market that cater to our global guests visiting the Great Lakes. Why is this an opportunity? International guests do not necessarily want the same thing as Michiganders or out-of-state visitors do, which can make it hard to provide satisfactory services. Several nationalities prefer (or only know) public transportation when traveling which may (or may not) reflect their mode of transportation in their homeland. International visitors have different cuisine preferences, which can foster the growth of more culinary tourism ventures. For example, Europeans are choosing vacation destinations that are more “sustainable” and strive for carbon neutrality. Simply said, international guests expect different services and the best way to cater to those services is fill gaps in the market. All of these are opportunities, but what about the challenges? The next installment of this article will look at the cultural challenges that come with an increase in international tourism to a location traditionally based on national visitors.

Contact the tourism team from Michigan State University Extension for more information about helping your community meet its current needs while securing the needs of future generations.

Other articles in this series:

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