Outdoor recreation provided $12.36 billion to the Michigan state economy in 2022, a huge chunk of which was generated in the wintry months.
But as the winter season unfolds across the Midwest, towns in Michigan, traditionally blanketed in snow and bustling with winter tourism, face an unprecedented challenge. The culprit? El Nino – a climatic phenomenon known for disrupting global weather patterns.
This year, its impact is acutely felt in the form of sparse snowfall, casting a shadow over Michigan’s winter wonderland.
Until this past weekend.
An unexpected winter storm dropped between 6 inches and two feet of snow across the state – and lake effect showers may add even more through the end of this week.
But it could be too little, too late.
The Impact of El Niño
The lack of snow is not just a meteorological anomaly; it’s a critical economic concern for communities that rely heavily on winter tourism.
From ski resorts and snowmobile trails to ice fishing spots and festive winter events, this winter’s lack of snow is reshaping the economic landscape of these towns. How are Michigan businesses, economies, and winter tourism adapting to a season that, in many ways, nearly failed to arrive?
The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center indicates that El Niño will lead to a winter less severe than usual, resulting in warmer temperatures across the northern United States.
Michigan will likely experience a winter with less snow and warmer temperatures than is typical for the region, as has been the case in December and early January. Recent weather aside, the NOAA outlook forecasts a higher likelihood of above-normal temperatures in January for the majority of the Great Lakes region, including all of Michigan.
Most of Lower Michigan faces a 33-40% probability of experiencing above-average temperatures, with the Upper Peninsula having an even greater chance of warmer than average temps.
The Struggle of Snow-Dependent Businesses
The lack of snow and typical cold temperatures impacts businesses reliant on the season.
Facing bare slopes, Michigan ski resorts are experiencing a significant drop in visitors and revenue. The usual buzz of activity around these resorts has quieted, reflecting the financial strain of a season without its essential element. Even with snow-making machines, the resorts struggle to keep snow on the slopes.
In AwesomeMitten.com’s Day Trips in Michigan Facebook group, Kit Lynn shares, “We have a ski trip planned for Boyne Highlands. Very few runs and lifts open. Going anyway.” Alternately, Sarah McNees changed her plans, “We wanted to go to Boyne with the kids, but lack of snow has us holding off.”
Boyne Mountain has implemented a “Snow Guarantee” for the 2024 season, allowing guests to return their lift ticket in the first hour of use if the conditions are less than favorable. This, coupled with their “Easy Change” policy, allows skiers to trade in their lift ticket value to be used another day.
Snowmobile shops and getaway destinations are similarly struggling, with untraveled trails and idle snowmobiles. The absence of snow leads to fewer customers and a substantial loss of income.
The Upper Peninsula is known for being a winter wonderland, but travelers like Lauren Wilson and Jennifer Lee scrapped their U.P. snowmobile vacations due to the lack of snow. “We canceled our snowmobile trip to Big Bay. We were supposed to go for the whole week next week.”
Other group members, like Carrie Bollman, look for alternatives to snow sports south of Michigan’s winter tourism towns. “My kids home from college are rather bored without being able to ski. Looking for something [to do] south of Northern Michigan to have some fun. Maybe go-karts [or] trampoline park?”
This situation highlights the vulnerability of snow-dependent businesses in Michigan. The reduced tourist influx due to the lack of snow creates economic challenges for the state’s winter tourism sector.
Economic Impact on Local Communities
In Northern Michigan’s small towns, the absence of snow significantly impacts the local economy.
Hotels, typically bustling with winter tourists, now face empty rooms and lost revenue, affecting the livelihoods of their staff. Restaurants and shops, usually busy with visitors, are experiencing a sharp decline in customers.
Lake Cadillac Resort decided to shut down for the season, citing the anticipated weather. “The lack of winter tourism, coupled with the historically low amount of snowfall, makes it difficult to operate at full capacity in the winter months … we are lucky to get a handful of weekends where there is even enough snow to ride on.”
They’ve turned their revenue focus to other area attractions that don’t require snow to run.
The Domino Effect of Event Cancellations
The lack of snow significantly impacts the local economy and community spirit. Winter festivals, drivers of commerce during the cold months, may either be canceled or downsized. That will cost organizers, vendors, and artisans substantial revenue.
The Mid-Michigan Ice Fishing Tournament Series already pushed back its planned event schedule due to the lack of ice on Michigan’s inland lakes.
Event organizers posted, “I’m sure everyone is aware of the lack of ice across the entire state, so with that being said, the schedule will be pushed back a week in hopes of some colder temperatures in the future. Unfortunately, this year seems like it will be like the last with schedule, date, and location changes to try and find fishable, and most importantly, safe ice to hold an event on.”
Winter festival and event cancellation create a domino effect. — empty hotels and inns, quieter restaurants and cafes, and reduced sales for shops. Seasonal workers are jobless and local governments deal with decreasing tax revenues.
The cancellation of the 2024 Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race on Jan. 6-7, prompts organizers to remark, “The lack of snow in our area is not only a detriment to us but to the entire Tahquamenon Community. Please continue to support our sponsors; this mild winter has led to a huge decrease in the winter tourism that our area thrives on.”
The economic and cultural impact of these cancellations is a reminder of the delicate balance between nature, economy, and tradition – a balance now disrupted by the unpredictable forces of climate.
Adapting To Thrive Without Snow
Towns and businesses are innovatively adapting to this new climate reality by diversifying winter activities to sustain economic vitality and community spirit.
Indoor events like craft fairs and cultural festivals pop up. Communities redefine outdoor activities, maintain hiking trails for winter walks, and repurpose snow sport areas for activities like bird watching or winter camping.
Businesses are also adapting, with rental shops adding all-weather activity equipment like fat-tire bikes, and restaurants creating cozy, winter-themed indoor experiences. These changes, however, come with challenges, including the need for additional investment and marketing efforts to attract tourists.
Despite these challenges, these opportunities attract a broader visitor base and build resilience against future climatic uncertainties. This shift is a testament to the enduring spirit and adaptability of Michigan’s communities as they redefine winter tourism and thrive amid change.
Overcoming El Niño – A Testament to Michigan’s Resilience
El Niño’s impact on winter weather presents stark challenges reshaping the state’s economic and cultural landscape. The absence of snow affects everything from businesses reliant on winter activities to seasonal events.
This situation necessitates rethinking winter tourism, balancing economic needs with environmental considerations, and leveraging natural and cultural assets. The current challenges foster innovation and a spirit of adaptability.
This article was produced by Media Decision and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.