Traverse City Record-Eagle

Business

April 10, 2009

Bill O'Brien: Sense of urgency for tourism

Northern Michigan started to evolve as a summer getaway for the weary and wealthy not long after Henry Ford invented automotive mass production in the early 20th century.

The auto industry went on to dominate the state's business sector for decades and transformed Michigan into an economic powerhouse. Not so much for the tourism trade, although it certainly grew into an integral segment of northern Michigan's economic landscape.

Fast forward a century or so from those early days, and Michigan's automotive industry finds itself on the brink of irrelevance. More look to the state's tourism trade to take up economic slack created by the auto industry's free-fall. A growing number of former manufacturing workers find themselves in start-up businesses or service jobs.

In some ways, Michigan's tourism sector faces the same challenges as the automobile industry. Its mind-set of, "Just keep doing what we've done and the customers will show up," kept auto executives, workers and union bosses employed for years, and quite well-paid.

But it wasn't built to sustain that model. The rest of the world's auto industry caught and passed Michigan's stodgy carmakers with better products, prices and service. The world automobile industry became more competitive, but Michigan's car companies were slow to respond and lost market share they may never recover.

Will Michigan's tourism industry learn from those mistakes, or is it doomed to repeat them?

Local travel officials refer to Michigan as a "world-class" tourism product because of natural features like the Great Lakes' sandy beaches, spectacular vistas and diverse fishery. The state offers first-class golf courses, high-end resorts, scenic rivers for fishing and canoeing, and a host of unique sites for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing.

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