Travel bookings on the rise

Mar. 19—DEARBORN — Expect to see fewer people in northern Michigan the last week of March.

And more this summer.

A recent AAA survey shows more Michigan residents plan to travel for the approaching spring break and later this year.

About 28% of Michiganders are planning a spring break vacation, according to the release from AAA — The Auto Club Group. That's up slightly from the 24% who traveled in 2022 for the late March break in school.

For most high schools and Northwestern Michigan College, students will be off beginning March 27 and returning to class when the calendar turns to April.

Travel bookings for the rest of 2023 are also on the rise, according to the survey. Some 79% of Michiganders plan to travel this year, a significant increase from 62% in 2022.

The 2023 rebound was a big part of Traverse City Tourism's annual conference March 9 at Great Wolf Lodge.

"I think we've come out very strong on the other side," Traverse City Tourism Board Chair Matthew Bryant, the general manager at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, said shortly after calling the meeting to order.

Traverse City Tourism President/CEO Trevor Tkach said while activity is on the rebound and approaching pre-pandemic levels, it will take the efforts of a lot of people. Several times during the March 9 meeting Tkach talked about the importance of partnerships.

"We're working hard every day to take full advantage of the resources, the assets our community has available," Tkach said before the annual meeting started.

The region drew 6.9 million visitors to the area in 2021. Those visitors spent $913 million in 2021, created $1.3 billion in annual economic impact and generated more than 8,500 jobs.

While lodging and other hospitality sectors are a huge part of the region's tourism emphasis, the partnership with Cherry Capital Airport may be big key.

Cherry Capital Airport Director Kevin Klein said a $2.6 million TC Tourism/TVC partnership investment since 2012 has generated more than $1 billion in airline revenue and more than 4.4 million passengers.

"Bringing (visitors) into town is what it's all about," Klein said at last week's meeting of the 75 percent increase in passengers since 2012. "Bringing it into Traverse City, bringing it into northern Michigan is what it's all about.

"Other than that, revenue is just flying away."

Cherry Capital had three airlines (American, Delta and United) and served five cities (Chicago, Denver, Detroit, La Guardia in New York and Minneapolis) in 2011, Klein said.

Today, Cherry Capital has added Allegiant and Sun Country and serves 17 cities.

While Klein said the June through August period at the airport is still the busiest — when Traverse City's seasonal population surges to nearly 100,000 — he showed a slide at last week's presentation that indicated more activity has "spread to the shoulder seasons" outside of the summer.

That all begins with spring break and the AAA survey supported it.

"AAA expects one of the busiest spring break travel seasons in years," Debbie Haas, Vice President of Travel for AAA — The Auto Club Group, said in the release. "Previous spring travel seasons were affected by COVID-19. However, Americans are largely more confident about traveling again, and AAA has seen very strong bookings for beach destinations, cruises and attractions."

As with most spring break destinations, Michiganders are looking for places where the thermometer is significantly higher, preferably one with a nice beach.

Florida was the top domestic destination in the AAA survey. Hawaii was also another favored destination for those heading out in spring break.

Other spring break destinations in the U.S. ranking high with travelers included Las Vegas, New York City, San Francisco and New Orleans.

Cruising also seems to making a rebound after getting hit hard by the pandemic. Ships leaving from Florida ports in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Tampa — especially those bound for the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America — top the list of bookings through AAA. Shops sailing to Alaska, Canada, northern Europe and the Persian Gulf "have also seen a spike in popularity," according to the release.

AAA is also reporting that international travel bookings are up 30% compared to last year.

When the AAA survey was released earlier this month, 13% of Michiganders still hadn't made a decision on spring break trips.

For those making late travel plans, AAA suggests outside-the-box destinations including cities in colder climates. Looking at destinations within driving distance are also recommended for quick getaways for spring break.

Tkach said the region is ready to welcome people at any time of the year.

"Who doesn't want to come to Traverse City?" Tkach said. "Let's give them Traverse City as a destination."

And while getting tourism to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels requires a lot of effort, Tkach said the organization will keep "moving the needle."

"Here's to a tremendous 2023," Tkach said at the end of the March 9 annual meeting. "Let's keep rocking baby."