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Too much tourism? Northwoods communities celebrate — and grapple with — an increase in visitors

Eagle River, WI Chamber Of Commerce Facebook

Northern Wisconsin has been a summer vacation haven for decades. Now, it’s even more popular. But while visitors flock to lakeside towns, some locals wonder how many more tourists the region can sustain.

It’s 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, but business at Cafe Sonder, a small coffee shop on Minocqua’s main drag, has yet to slow down.

A line that stretches to the cafe’s front door never gets shorter. When one person leaves holding a fresh cup of coffee, another walks in.

“It’s like this all day,” says Natalie Sandberg, the cafe’s owner, nodding to the door. “The volume — it’s a lot.”

This is just Cafe Sonder’s second summer in Minocqua, but Sandberg says the business she does in July alone will be enough to sustain her through the year.

She’s thankful for this business.

“I wouldn’t be able to, in a second year, feel like I’m almost out of my startup costs,” she says.

But it’s not what she had in mind when she decided to open a coffee shop in the Northwoods.

“There are days when I feel like this must be what it feels like to work at Starbucks in O’Hare and I don’t like it at all,” she says. “But at that same time — this is the bittersweetness of Minocqua — if you don’t have that, how do you keep a business?”

Minocqua has long been a summer tourist destination, but in the past few years, the town’s popularity has surged.

The number of vacation rentals in Minocqua has nearly doubled since 2019, and the number of tourist rooming houses jumped from 8 to 42, according to the town clerk.

Additionally, tourism spending reached record levels last year, with many local businesses, including Cafe Sonder, reporting even higher profits this summer.

Krystal Westfahl, the executive director of the Minocqua Chamber of Commerce, attributes this uptick in visitors to years of concentrated marketing, which she says resonated with people when they were suddenly told to social distance.

“Many of our destinations in the North have relied on that cyclical traveler who’s had the same week at the same resort for years and years and years,” Westfahl says.

In 2020, some of those travelers decided to skip their traditional trip out of caution for COVID.

But others thought the Northwoods would be an ideal place to get away from big city crowds. Many of these people were first time visitors.

“We lost some,” Westfahl says, “but we picked up a heck of a lot more.”

In a lot of ways, Westfahl says these visitors bring much needed change to Minocqua.

“New businesses are here. We have a younger demographic here. We have more diversity now than we’ve ever had,” she says. “That’s all beautiful and it is long-term growth for a community that would have been considered dying.”

But this growth happened in a matter of years, when Westfahl and other community leaders were expecting it to happen over the course of decades.

“It’s just like, boom here it is, all in one fell swoop,” she says.

That’s challenging because Minocqua doesn’t have the infrastructure to support this level of tourism.

“We have an uptick in garbage, we have an uptick in the needs of the visitors,” she says. “Our police force, for instance, doesn’t increase over the summer, but when your population triples or quadruples over the summer, now they’re tasked to do all of that work and then some with all these additional people.”

There are also concerns about the toll increased activity takes on the region’s natural resources.

“These are people who are coming to Vilas because, for some reason, they know that it’s just this amazing place of lakes,” says Tom Ewing, the President of the Vilas County Lakes and Rivers Association. “It’s just incredible. It’s unique, probably, in the world.”

However, as more people come to enjoy the lakes, lake associations receive more and more complaints.

“It’s concerns about safety on the lake, it’s concerns about noise, about [Aquatic Invasive Species] issues, and through folks not following the rules in terms of no wake zones, there’s potential for shore damage as well,” Ewing says. “And this is all new stuff that’s been happening in the last couple of years. We didn’t hear about these kinds of problems in the past.”

Ewing says first time visitors to the Northwoods are often unaware of which lakes have aquatic invasive species, and they don’t always realize that high-powered wake boats can erode shorelines and tear up plants on a lake’s bottom.

Associations like his actively communicate with permanent lakeside residents, but reaching short-term vacationers is more difficult.

“There’s a big delay between that point where they’re enjoying the place and when they finally start learning about some of the responsibilities that come with enjoying it,” Ewing says.

As Ewing and Natalie Sandberg and Krystal Westfahl consider the future, they all wonder the same thing: is this level of tourism sustainable?

How can communities encourage economic growth without sacrificing the very essence that attracts people to the Northwoods in the first place?

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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