MANCELONA -- Snow conditions in northern Lower Michigan couldn't be better, at least from Lee Rouch's perspective.
Rouch and three buddies wheeled to Mancelona from Bremen, Ind., with their snowmobiles, an annual tradition for them. Those in the local snowmobile tourism industry are thankful for the rite.
"I've been coming here since 1971 and I've never seen the trails in such good shape," Rouch said.
The men each spend at least $400 on their winter jaunts -- three meals a day at area pubs and restaurants, nights spent at an Antrim County motel.
"We leave a lot of money in Michigan," Rouch said.
"That's what makes the economy roll, spending money," said Bob Wilson, Rouch's friend and fellow snowmobiler.
The snowmobile sales and tourism industry typically pumps $1 billion each year into Michigan's economy, said Bill Manson, executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association. It's not such a rosy picture this year.
"We're seeing about a one-third reduction in the amount of people being able to snowmobile and unfortunately, it all ties back to the troubles with the auto industry," he said.
The economic impact will be significant, but MSA has no predictions on expected financial losses across the state, Manson said.
It's clear that northwoods visitor numbers are down this winter, and more folks opted to stay home and save money in the uncertain economy, area business owners said.
"Our regulars come, but they don't come for as long. When they'd stay for three or four nights before, now they just stay one or two nights or just day ride," said Dan Bolling, owner of the Sunny Woods Resort near Honor.
That business sits near a snowmobile trailhead in Benzie County. Business is down about 35 percent from last year, when snow conditions weren't as good.
"It's been a beautiful season, but the trails are empty," Bolling said. "It might as well have been bad."
Brett Campbell owns Snowblitz Snowmobile Rentals with locations at Grand Traverse County's Ranch Rudolph, Mancelona and Indian River in Cheboygan County. They are down this year, too, by about 10 percent, he said.
"We used to fill up every weekend and be turning business away. Now we're not filling up and barely on weekends. Previous years, even though the snow wasn't great, we'd still be full," Campbell said. "For this winter, we'll be getting by and paying bills. We're not going to be out buying a ton of machines."
Other businesses see the same trend.
"We've had a pretty slow year. I don't think it's so much related to the weather, but more to do with the economy," said Marc Six, manager at the Yankee Motel in Kalkaska County's South Boardman. "This economy and this sport was fueled by a lot of downstate Big Three workers who came up to play with their toys."
Huge losses in downstate manufacturing jobs undermines northern snowmobile tourism, he said.
"Traditionally, winters are a slow time, but it was a pull-you-through until spring. I don't even see as much traffic anymore," Six said. "It should be a banner year with the snow conditions."
Ways to bolster winter tourism include offering enticing package deals, discounts and hospitality, said Annie Shetler, president of the Kalkaska Chamber of Commerce.
"The biggest thing is customer service. If businesses up here want repeat customers ... it's up to us to provide that hospitable spirit to keep people coming here," she said.