With lots of area events and stops by big paddlewheelers at Riverside Park, the executive director of the La Crosse County Convention and Visitors Bureau is optimistic about the summer tourism season, which unofficially begins this weekend.

“We had a wonderful year in 2016 and are extremely optimistic that we will see a strong tourism season in 2017,” said A.J. Frels, executive director of the bureau, which also is known as Explore La Crosse.

Visitor spending in La Crosse County totaled $248.1 million in 2016, up 5 percent from $236.1 million in 2015, according to an annual study commissioned by the state Department of Tourism.

When the study’s results were announced earlier this month, state officials attributed tourism spending increases in 2016 to lower gas prices, spending increases in the lodging sector and consumer confidence.

“We anticipate growth again” in 2017, Frels said. One reason is “We’re seeing some conventions return that haven’t been here for awhile,” he said.

Gasoline prices didn’t deter tourists in 2016, Frels said. “I certainly hope they stay within a reasonable range and don’t affect us, but that’s always a wild card,” he said.

Five big paddlewheelers are scheduled to make a total of 23 stops in Riverside Park in La Crosse this summer and fall, including a Sept. 2 visit by the new American Duchess.

“While our hotels don’t see the overnight stays from these boats since people spend the night on the boats, the downtown area does see activity” from passengers who visit local stores and restaurants, Frels said.

Besides bringing their passengers to visit the city, the big boats draw area residents who want to see them.

Meanwhile, Kathy Jostad, who manages the local La Crosse Queen excursion boat operation, also is optimistic about the summer tourism season. The La Crosse Queen’s 2017 cruise schedule began May 6 and continues into late October from Riverside Park.

“So far, business has been good,” Jostad said. “The contracts we pre-book (for large groups and private events) are coming in fast and furious.”

As far as individuals, Jostad said, “We’ve had a lot of phone calls and inquiries. Based on the phone calls we’ve received, it looks like this will be another banner year.”

Jostad said a record number of passengers boarded the La Crosse Queen last year, but declined to say what the number was.

People who visit the area will have another place to stay when the 67-room Gundersen Hotel & Suites opens this summer adjacent to the Gundersen Health System La Crosse campus. A hotel official said last week the hotel is expected to open in mid-August.

“This will be a great addition to our lodging inventory,” Frels said.

Four new hotels with a combined total of 392 guest rooms opened in downtown La Crosse between September 2015 and July 2016, providing additional lodging options for tourists and other visitors.

Visitors and area residents will have many events to choose from this summer.

Some highlights for the coming months include the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association State Track & Field Meet on Friday and Saturday this week, June Dairy Days in West Salem next Friday through Sunday, Artspire June 9-10, Lobsterfest June 16, Onalaska Community Days June 16-17, Norskedalen’s Midsummer Festival June 17-18, Rotary Rock N Ribs June 23-24, Celebrate Onalaska June 23-25, Badger State Games Track & Field Championships June 24;

Also, Riverfest June 30-July 4, Three Rivers Roleo July 8, Big Blue Dragon Boat Races July 14-15, Freedom Fest July 15, La Crosse Interstate Fair July 19-23, Rail Fair July 22, AAUW Art Fair on the Green July 29-30, Irishfest Aug. 11-13, Kornfest Aug. 18-20, Norskedalen’s Threshing Bee Aug. 19, Great River Folk Festival Aug. 25-27, Coulee Con Aug. 25-27, La Crosse Area Bicycle Festival Sept. 1-4 and Oktoberfest Sept. 28-Oct. 1.

For more details on local events, visit www.explorelacrosse.com.

The area continues to be a destination for fishing, biking, hiking, kayaking and canoeing, Frels said. “With the new waterway trails opening last year, inquiries have spiked tremendously for these types of activities,” he said.

Fishing continues to increase as well, Frels said, adding that besides the Fishing League Worldwide tournament held earlier this month, the area also will host a Kayak Bass Fishing Trail tournament on Aug. 5. The event will be featured on two episodes of the TV show “Kayak Bassin’ with Chad Hoover.”

The kayak fishing tournament and two TV episodes will be repeated in the following two years as well. “We’ll be able to showcase not only the wonderful fishing we have, but also what there is to do in the area,” Frels said.

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