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West Michigan tourism expected to grow, despite inflation, high gas prices

Grand Rapids played host to the U.S. Travel Association's annual seminar. It's a big boost to local economy in itself, as business travel is slower to grow.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — More than 1,000 tourism officials met in Grand Rapids this week for the U.S. Travel Association's annual Educational Seminar for Tourism Organizations

Having the meeting in Grand Rapids, local tourism leaders say the event itself promotes business travel. 

"We like to say that by marketing this destination to visitors, it's also helping Grand Rapids attract the best and brightest employees," said Doug Small, President of Experience Grand Rapids, "Because people want to work in communities that are fun and cool. That's how we market it to visitors, but it helps helps other businesses throughout the community also."

Small said in Kent County, tourism is a billion dollar industry annually. Not only in West Michigan, but across the state, tourism is a major pillar of the economy. 

However, the pandemic put a major dent in the tourism industry. Across the country, it has been growing since 2020. According to the U.S. Travel Association, demand for leisure travel has been very strong this year due to pent up demand. Most all of American travelers, 92%, plan to take a trip in the next six months. 

"But business and international are really depressed," said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president for public affairs and policy with U.S. Travel Association, "We're still looking at a business travel recovery in the 2026 timeframe, and a recovery of international business in 2025 to 2026."

In Grand Rapids, Small anticipates tourism will be back to pre-pandemic numbers by 2023. 

"I'd like to say that Grand Rapids is coming out of it quicker than most destinations," said Small.

However, he said the economy is the wild card. If inflation continues at the current pace, those pre-pandemic levels may not happen by next year. He said they are in the middle of surveying local hotel economy and what they are anticipating for next year, but also using U.S. Travel Association's consultants, to give insight into what the next year may bring. 

Despite inflation, Emerson Barnes said people are still planning to take trips. However, they may be modifying plans, like staying closer to home or taking fewer amount of trips. 

"Interestingly, gas prices, because of the pent up demand, haven't been negatively impacting travel as much as you would think," said Emerson Barnes. 

Small called hosting the seminar this week in Grand Rapids "a privilege." Previously, it was held in Los Angeles in 2021, and Austin in 2019. 

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