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Outdoor pursuits leading local tourism comeback in La Crosse area
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Outdoor pursuits leading local tourism comeback in La Crosse area

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A buzzer rings periodically at the Sparta Area Chamber of Commerce office with someone wanting to purchase a bike trail pass.

“The door buzzes every few minutes,” said Heidi Prestwood, executive director of the Sparta Chamber. “We’re a busy office.”

The Sparta Chamber office was one of the few places in Wisconsin that actually saw an uptick in visitors during an otherwise dismal 2020 tourism season kneecapped by COVID-19. As more people get vaccinated and the pandemic subsides, local leaders are optimistic that the rest of the tourism industry will join bicycles on the road to economic recovery.

A.J. Frels, executive director of Explore La Crosse, said the early numbers are encouraging.

“We see things ramping up quicker than we anticipated,” Frels said. “People are tired of being pent up.”

Frels said tourism took a big hit everywhere last year. Nearly every large gathering in the La Crosse area was cancelled, including River Fest in the summer, Oktoberfest in the fall, and the annual Country Boom concert, which attracts nationally recognized musicians.

Tourism spending in La Crosse County declined from a record $281 million in 2019 to $196 million in 2020, a drop of 30%.

“Every tourism destination in the entire world was impacted,” Frels said. “The destinations that rely on conventions, meetings and festivals were really impacted.”

Frels said it would have been worse without outdoor recreation. He said the area’s hiking and bicycle trails, campgrounds and the Mississippi River attracted visitors looking for something to do within a one-day drive and still remain six feet apart.

“La Crosse lends itself very well to outdoor activities,” Frels said. “Out there on the water, it’s social distancing at its best.”

He said La Crosse got a boost last season from fishing tournaments and already has 18 events — all catch-and-release — lined up for 2021.

“We were able to do things like virtual registration,” Frels said. “We look forward to having them back again. We know they worked.”

La Crosse Chamber of Commerce CEO Neal Zygarlicke welcomed the surge in outdoor activities.

“It didn’t recoup our losses, but it definitely helped,” Zygarlicke said.

Social distancing also played a role in last year’s bicycling boom. The Sparta Chamber office sits on the west end of the iconic Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail, and Prestwood said bicycle traffic was steady throughout the 2020 season.

“Last year, we ran out of passes numerous times,” Prestwood said. “I don’t have any numbers to compare it to, but all I know is that last year, we were really busy.”

The trail celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016 as the first rails-to-trails bike route in the United States, and its pioneering status has long attracted cyclists from across the country and abroad. Prestwood said the trail became even more popular in 2020 as people embraced bicycling as a safe activity during the pandemic.

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“The main thing is that it’s outside,” Prestwood said. “It’s nice you can go outside and do an activity with your own family. People were clearly looking for something to do.”

Like the Sparta Chamber, Speed’s Bicycle Shop in Sparta sits on the Elroy-Sparta trail, and owners Milt and Rose Leis got a first-hand look at how COVID-19 impacted the area bicycling scene.

“Biking was something people could do,” Milt Leis said. “We had none of the large groups, but it got to be families coming in. A lot of people were doing more day trips. It was close to normal, just a different group of people.”

Bike sales skyrocketed in spring 2020 to the point where Speed’s didn’t have bicycles left to sell. Rose Leis said the shop’s rental bikes are normally sold after the trail closes its tunnels Oct. 1. However, the shop hung on to them to ensure rentals would be available for the start of 2021.

“Last year, we decided not to pull anything until we knew we had a bike to replace it with,” she said.

Trail traffic remained robust even though parts of the Elroy-Sparta trail are still closed due to flood damage from 2018. Nearly 10 miles of trail from Wilton to Elroy aren’t expected to reopen until 2022.

The La Crosse River Trail from Sparta to La Crosse and Great River State Trail from La Crosse to Marshland are completely open. Brigit Brown of the Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Parks said bike trail use in the La Crosse area nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020.

“A lot of people who couldn’t go to the mall or go to the movies got outside and took to the trails instead,” Brown said.

Communities that rely on events and festivals are looking forward to a much better 2021. Three long-time pillars of the Tomah tourism industry — tractor pull, Monroe County Fair and Warrens Cranberry Festival — were pulled from the 2020 calendar. Also pulled was Downtown Thursday Nights, which debuted in 2019 and significantly exceeded visitor expectations.

“They were huge losses,” Tomah Chamber of Commerce executive director Tina Thompson said. “Our hotels suffered. Our restaurants suffered.”

She said all three are poised to return in 2021 with few, if any, restrictions.

“I’m anticipating a good year,” Thompson said.

Zygarlicke is also anxious for community festivals to return.

“For many people, it’s their first experience in La Crosse,” Zygarlicke said. “It’s incredibly important to bring those events back this year.”

Frels said it would be a stretch for 2021 to rebound all the way back to 2019. He said while April hotel stays in La Crosse are actually more than 2% higher than April 2019, room rates haven’t bounced back to 2019 levels.

“The revenue isn’t all the way back, but the people are coming back,” he said. “It’s going to take a few years to get back to those 2019 numbers.”

Frels, however, is optimistic about the long run. He said the city is booking meetings and conventions again and believes this decade will be “the traveling 20s.”

“We’re excited about the potential of 2021 and beyond,” he said. “I believe the future is bright.”

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Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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