A little more than a year ago the nation’s media outlets, including Great Lakes Now, were reporting on the widespread closures and restrictions being enacted across Great Lakes states. There were complete or partial closures and restrictions at nearly all public parks, preserves and other lakes-related facilities. Bars, restaurants and many stores and businesses were locking their doors.
But now widespread vaccination and the Center for Disease Control’s recent dropping of the mask mandate for vaccinated individuals have states and businesses revising their restrictions. And with summer quickly approaching, popular destinations for recreation, dining, shopping and outdoors activities are fully opening for business.
A new branding campaign for Put-in-Bay’s summer season is just that: “Open for fun in 2021.”
“We are extremely excited for the start of a great 2021 season,” Eric Booker, operator of The Boardwalk restaurant at Put-in-Bay, told a group of journalists, social media influencers and TV and radio reporters recently. “We’ve all been through 2020, and we want to put that behind us.”
The new Put-in-Bay slogan appears to be a good fit for other Great Lakes tourism hotspots as well.
Doors wide open in 2021
“We have a lot of outdoor recreation like beaches,” said Jon Jarosh, director of communications for Destination Door County. “We’re a peninsula sticking out into Lake Michigan, so a lot of boating, a lot of kayaking, and we’re rural too, so we have a lot of hiking and biking opportunities. And a whole bunch of parks too – five state parks, 19 county parks and a lot of village and town parks.”
According to Jarosh, Door County is currently open for the season and is pretty much back to normal.
“There are no mandates statewide, at least here in Wisconsin and including in Door County,” he said. “Our public health department has recommended we still take the same precautions we have during the last year-plus, but nothing’s enforceable. We’re just doing that to make sure people feel safe and comfortable while they’re here and to help protect our workforce.”
Jarosh said Door County’s offerings to visitors consists mostly of small, family-owned businesses and that each business is left to make its own decisions on safety rules and precautions. And with that being said, Jarosh noted that restaurants and drinking establishments in his area took advantage of the pandemic by exponentially expanding their outdoor areas.
“I’d say in the last five or six years it has beefed up, but last year it became a necessity for restaurants and bars to have a safe space to go,” he said. “And we really saw that this winter, since businesses had time to plan and think about what they wanted to do, so we’re going to have even more outdoor restaurants and bars in Door County this summer. I think it’s a trend we saw coming, but I think it just happened a lot quicker because of the pandemic.”
According to Jarosh, businesses in the area have worked hard to ensure that as many workers in the tourism and recreation industry get vaccinated both for the health and safety of workers and to ensure a stable workforce to keep businesses open all season long.
“And our charter boat fleet is ready to go, and the fishing has been really great so far this year,” he said.
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In Michigan, meanwhile, the low-key tourist mecca of Mackinac Island has already returned to the good old days when folks walked off the ferry and onto a bustling island free of motorized vehicles. The island is famous for its walking, biking and horse-drawn carriage-only transportation, though snowmobiles are allowed in winter.
“We are fully open, and it looks just like 2019, and the only difference is people are wearing masks. The level of tourism activity is about the same,” said Tim Hygh, executive director of Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau. “The only thing that’s missing is the convention business. It’s not back yet, and the group tour business, the seniors and the students, which we would normally see in May. But social and leisure travel is here and it’s very strong.”
Hygh said there are no restrictions on group travel, but that larger tour groups just aren’t booking trips yet. His office does look for those customers to return later in the season this year or spring 2022. Last year, mid-pandemic, many island business didn’t open until late June and that was with restrictions.
“But we made it through the winter and companies that didn’t open last year are open this year, ” he said, going on to explain that business owners who opted out of the pandemic protocols and restrictions have returned. “In fact, I’m looking out my window as we speak and I’m looking at a long line of people waiting to go on a narrated carriage tour. So yes, we’re back.”
Lake Ontario’s biggest draw is open
Niagara Falls, perhaps the Midwest’s most iconic travel destination, met with the same flurry of varied restrictions as the rest of the nation’s tourism centers during 2020 season. Now, those rules are quickly disappearing.
“Niagara Falls State Park is wide open, and there are plenty of open spaces to explore,” said Libby Woock, director of marketing with Niagara Falls USA. “The attractions are open, including Maid of the Mist which just launched brand-new, emissions-free electric vessels. Also there is the Cave of the Winds, which is a staircase that leads you right up to Bridal Veil Falls where you can stand on the Hurricane Deck and soak in the true power of the falls.”
She said Niagara’s hiking and biking trails are open. Old Fort Niagara, helicopter tours, Erie Canal attractions and other adventures in the immediate region are open and ready for visitors.
“We encourage people to do their due diligence prior to visiting in terms of if they need tickets beforehand. There are still capacity limits at many of the attractions, so just ensuring they are fully prepped and ready to go,” Woock said. “And of course, our partners are adhering to COVID-19 protocols.”
Woock said Niagara businesses, like everyone else, follow the ever-changing safety guidelines relating to the pandemic. But, she said, that doesn’t mean it will put a damper on the 2021 season.
“There are still some capacity limitations in place,” she said. “Right now, I think we’re at 75% indoor capacity.”
Western Lake Erie sites optimistic for 2021
Our Sunset Place, a bed and breakfast overlooking Lake Erie on Catawba Island, Ohio, has had a banner year so far, and bookings are up significantly.
“By Jan. 1 we had 130 nights booked for this year already,” said Bart Erwin, who operates the site with his wife. “It was zero for half the year in 2020 and up the second half. 2020 was okay, but we only had three months.”
Erwin said he expects business to boom for all leisure-based businesses in the region.
On the mainland in downtown Port Clinton, a makeshift outdoor dining area – created by closing a section of Madison Street and adding picnic tables and a small stage – has returned. As chance would have it, the necessity for open, outdoor dining created by the pandemic last season has curried favor among city residents and visitors and will again be the center of the Port Clinton entertainment district. A new and improved 2021 entertainment stage has replaced the 2020 stage.
A few miles across the water, island business owners and officials say their new ad campaign is a perfect fit for the post-COVID world because it features more leisure activities that aren’t necessarily related to hanging out with weekend crowds inside.
Booker and other South Bass Island business owners unveiled the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau’s new branding campaign with a fresh logo and slogans designed to welcome the world back to Put-in-Bay, after a pandemic year that was terrible for travel and tourism.
The new branding campaign aims to remind returning visitors and first-timers that there’s more than just the hard-driving nightlife provided by more than two-dozen bars and restaurants on the island.
“It’s not just the weekends, it’s the weekdays,” explained Doug Merritt, of Cleveland-based Flourish Agency. “We really, truly want to bring out the best of Put-in-Bay. For the weekdays, we’re looking at families and empty-nesters.”
According to Merritt, future tourism efforts will be highlighting the relaxing effect of being on an island as well as the outdoors activities. For the Lake Erie islands, that includes birding, hiking, paddle sports, dives into island history and the allure of being away from home and work, including doing mostly nothing at all – just escaping from life for a few days.
Wendy Chambers, the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, described South Bass and its surrounding areas as being flush with outdoor adventures for families and children as well as being COVID-safe.
“It is not dangerous. Our businesses are emphasizing a safe and comfortable environment. After last summer they went the extra mile to create outdoor dining,” she explained. “And there’s so much to do outdoors here that there’s no reason you can’t come and feel comfortable. There are many parks and nature preserves, and all kinds of things people can see and experience – especially during the weekdays. And we have so much to offer with the vibrant downtown and the shopping, so I encourage people to come here.”
Chambers could not resist ending her interview with a reminder of Put-in-Bay’s new tagline.
“Come to The Bay – Open for fun in 2021.”
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Featured image: Put-in-Bay tourism officials are hoping weekdays, butterflies and non-drinking-related fun will boost visitor numbers. (Photo Credit: James Proffitt)