MADISON, Wis. — The pandemic has driven people outside all year in Wisconsin, building on a $7.8 billion outdoor recreation industry in the state.
The Wisconsin Department of Tourism reports that there has been an 18% increase in weekend trips to state parks and a 371% increase in searches for hikes and trails on their website.
The department also reports a 100% increase in first-time fishing license sales and a 24% increase in Wisconsin ATV trail pass sales. Nationally, there has been a 70% increase in boat sales and a 121% increase in bike sales.
“If there were to be a silver lining for all the challenges all of us are facing, outdoor recreation may be just that,” said Sara Meaney, Wisconsin Tourism Department Secretary-Designee, “We have heard stories of many, many people rediscovering the outdoors with their families and spending a lot more quality time doing things like that which of course lead to healthier communities.”
Meaney said she expects that trend to continue into the winter months as the need for socially distant and outdoor activities continue as coronavirus numbers continue to climb in Wisconsin.
Like most ski resorts, Granite Peak Ski Area in Wausau is trying to plan for coronavirus precautions.
“It's definitely new, and it is a challenge,” said Greg Fisher, general manager and marketing director of Granite Peak.
Granite Peak is scheduled to open on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. Fisher said they are constantly developing best practices for coronavirus safety. Right now they are planning on operating buildings at 25 percent capacity, preparing to limit ticket sales on weekends or holidays if they need to, and increasing outdoor seating.
“It could change day to day,” Fisher said. “I don't know, and we're certainly going to take it from safety first.”
However, Fisher said skiing is an inherently socially distant activity — you don't want to be too close to fellow skiers or snowboarders on the slopes.
“So we're excited for the outside stuff,” Fisher said. “I think a lot of people are, folks have been stuck at home, a lot of cabin fever, this will give an outlet to that.”
Outdoor recreation retailers continue to see increases in sales. Bobby Donahue with Donahue Super Sports in Wisconsin Rapids said people are exploring the outdoors near them rather than traveling around the country to tourist destinations.
“We noticed a huge increase in people getting involved in these sports, and a lot of first-timers, a lot of people that have never been into our store in the 50 plus years we've been in business,” Donahue said.
Donahue said it's refreshing to see people get outdoors more. However, he said keeping up with inventory has been a challenge — particularly as manufacturers have had weeks-long coronavirus shutdowns.
“A lot of interest, no doubt about it, and definitely a shortage of product to go with it,” Donahue said.
The Department of Tourism hopes that people discovering, or re-discovering, outdoor activities close to their homes will stick around past the pandemic as well.
“We would love to think that this also indicates a rediscovery of some of the great four-season activities that Wisconsin offers,” Meaney said.
In the short term, places like Granite Peak are getting ready to host people ready to take advantage of Wisconsin's winter.
“I think they want to be outside as much as possible,” Fisher said. “They're not going to be looking to get inside, and I think that's why skiing and riding, snowboarding, we could see quite a bit of business this year.”