Our Tourist Industry Isn’t for the Tourists

“The truth is that the tourist industry in Door County isn’t actually for the tourists. The primary beneficiaries of tourism are the residents of Door County.”

It’s early February as I write this, and there is little snow on the ground, the temperatures are regularly above freezing, and I find myself checking the Sister Bay Marina camera to see whether the Goat on a Boat has finally begun to float, indicating that the ice has melted away. In other words, all the signs are pointing to the reality that Door County’s “season” will soon be upon us. 

This time of year always fills me with mixed emotions. I’m happily looking forward to the return of our many seasonal friends. I’m enthusiastic that my lovely wife and I will soon be able to take our evening walks through downtown Sturgeon Bay. I’m extremely excited that the golf courses will soon be open. Yet if I’m being perfectly honest, I will admit that I’m not necessarily looking forward to sharing space with the throngs of visitors who will soon be crowding our community. 

I intellectually understand the tremendous impact that visitors have on our economy. What surprised me was to learn that economists consider tourism to be an export. 

When I bought my van from a local car dealer, that transaction moved money between people who already live in Door County. The same holds true when I go out to dinner, shop at a grocery store or spend an evening at the theater down the street: It’s one local person giving money to another local person, business or organization. Through these transactions, I have a little less and the other guy has a little more, but the total wealth of Door County hasn’t changed. We’re essentially just recirculating our dollars around the community. For an economy to grow, new money must be brought into the system. That’s where exports come in.

When we think of exports, we imagine a community that manufactures widgets exporting them to people who live outside that community. Exporting widgets has an oversized economic impact because it brings new money into a region from people who live outside that region.

Consequently, exports are a primary way for a community as a whole to grow wealthier. Recirculating money among people who live in the same place is just slicing up the pie so that if I take a bigger piece, yours must be a bit smaller. Exports grow the pie so that all of us get to enjoy a bigger bite.

Economically, that’s essentially what happens with tourism. People from outside Door County bring their money to our community and leave it behind for us to enjoy. Rather than just recirculating the existing wealth in our county, tourism is an export because it has the same effect as selling widgets to outsiders: It grows the economic pie so we can all have more to eat. Visitors spent $423 million in Door County in 2021. That’s money coming in to create jobs, provide economic opportunities and build wealth in Door County.

We want our visitors to have a wonderful time in Door County because we’re a welcoming community and we love to share the place we call home. Yet the truth is that the tourist industry in Door County isn’t actually for the tourists. The primary beneficiaries of tourism are the residents of Door County.

In many ways, this philosophy has never been more apparent than under the new and rejuvenated leadership teams of Destination Door County and the Door County Tourism Zone. Between people assuming new positions and the increase in the room-tax rate, the leaders of these organizations are reimagining the relationship that tourism has to the residents of Door County. 

The significant increase in room-tax revenue essentially presented our visitor industry with a series of choices. It could have spent all that new money buying more advertising in Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis in an effort to dramatically add to our annual visitor count. Yet most local business owners I know would say that they are already at or near their capacity to give our guests a good experience. Furthermore, I have yet to hear a single person in Door County complain that we don’t have enough tourists.

Another option would be to create a tourist-development grant program similar to what our friends in the Fox Cities do. They dedicate a portion of their room-tax revenue to grants that foster the “development or expansion of visitor attractions and amenities.” Although that’s certainly worthwhile, their focus is benefiting the tourists, not the residents of the Fox Cities.

Instead, the leaders of Door County’s tourist industry essentially returned to the fundamental idea that tourism is a tool to build a better community for the year-round and seasonal residents who call this place home. The new Community Investment Fund is perhaps the most visible manifestation of that idea. You can learn more about it at

Wisconsin state statutes require that room-tax dollars be used in a way that attracts tourists, so that’s a necessary requirement of every application to this new fund, but it’s not sufficient to earn a grant. The applicants must also demonstrate that their project will have a meaningful impact on the people who live and work in Door County. 

Using the dollars in this way seems so obvious in retrospect, but Door County is actually the first community in Wisconsin to take this approach. It’s so new that we at the Door County Community Foundation spent a lot of time with our attorneys to make sure that the new Community Investment Fund complies with state statutes. 

Thankfully, it does, and now the leaders of our visitor industry have created an innovative way of living into the idea that the primary beneficiaries of tourism are our local residents. Although I may still get a bit grumpy about traffic and the crowds every now and then, I’m OK with them because I know these visitors help make my beloved Door County better for us all.

Contact Bret Bicoy at [email protected]