Sarah Nicholls said she observes an odd phenomenon every time she takes a flight from her native England to Detroit’s Metro Airport.
“The vast majority of people coming from England are making connections in Detroit — very few are staying in Detroit,” said Nicholls, a tourism expert and associate professor at Michigan State University.
Nicholls said the inclination of many international travelers to bypass Detroit is an enormous problem and opportunity for Michigan’s resurgent tourism industry.
“There are a number of flights from Europe and Asia coming into Detroit every day,” Nicholls said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to entice some of those travelers to spend some time in Michigan or the Great Lakes region.”
Enter Pure Michigan, the state’s award-winning marketing campaign. The advertising campaign has instilled a sense of pride in Michigan residents and attracted millions of tourists from other states since hitting the airwaves in 2006.
Overseas travel markets may be the next great frontier for the Pure Michigan campaign.
“There is a general agreement (among state and travel industry officials) that the next step should be an international presence,” said George Zimmermann, vice president for Travel Michigan at the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
The state doesn’t advertise Pure Michigan abroad, and only does a limited amount of advertising in southern Ontario, Zimmerman said.
Michigan’s only tourism promotion overseas is part of a consortium of states called Great Lakes USA. The state’s new five-year Tourism Strategic Plan suggests doubling funding for the Pure Michigan campaign by 2017, to $50 million annually. Nicholls said that level of funding would allow the state to increase exposure to the Pure Michigan campaign in the U.S., Canada and abroad.
Securing that level of funding would require approval from the state Legislature, which controls the Pure Michigan budget.
Tapping the international travel market
Detroit Metro Airport is one of the nation’s busiest, handling 32 million passengers annually. In 2009, 2.7 million international travelers passed through the airport, according U.S. Census Bureau data.
Detroit Metro ranked 16th nationally for international travel in 2009, far behind the 10 million international passengers that passed though Chicago’s O’Hare Airport that year.
In 2010, the most recent year for which national data is available, 60 million international travelers visited the U.S. That figure is projected to reach 81 million by 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Kenji Yano, a partner at the Ann Arbor-based business-consulting firm of Sunrizing LLC, said Michigan could capitalize on the growing international travel market.
“I think Michigan has vast potential … but we have a lot of work to do to increase awareness of our destinations,” he said.
Yano, who has clients in Asia and Europe, said Michigan has attractions that would interest business and leisure travelers from most cultures: Beautiful scenery, the Great Lakes, the world’s largest cherry-producing region in Traverse City, numerous engineering firms in metro Detroit and excellent universities.
Michigan is absent from the largest travel websites in Japan, Yano said.
“If you look at the Japanese Yahoo travel site and look for package tours, there are trips to New York, L.A., Boston, Atlanta, Florida,” he said. “There are no tours in Michigan; the closest sites are Chicago and Buffalo.”
Michigan businesses that cater to tourists must do a better job of getting information about the state to travelers and travel agencies overseas, Yano said.
“People may want to enjoy those great things in Michigan but they just don’t have access to information on the Internet because we are not providing that information,” he said.
Nicholls said she had no idea what Michigan was like when she first visited the state in 2002.
“I was pleasantly surprised, mostly by the natural resources the state has — they are really abundant,” she said. “I think once people come here they’re going to be won over. The issue is making them aware of what Michigan has to offer and getting them to convert that awareness into a trip.”
Nicholls said the Pure Michigan campaign is the ideal tool for creating that awareness.
Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC and the author of "Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway." A former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle, Alexander writes a blog on the Great Lakes at http://allthingsgreatlakes.wordpress.com/.