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Lakeshore tourism took a hit last year, plans for rebound

News File Photo The New Presque Isle Lighthouse, shown in this News file photo, was among many Lake Huron destinations to take a tourism hit in 2020. Many such sites are expected to bounce back in 2021.

ALPENA — The big lake that reels visitors into Northeast Michigan caught fewer visits last year as tourist destinations, from lakeside restaurants and resorts to lighthouses and glass-bottom boat tours, were closed during much of 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

After one of its best tourism seasons ever in 2019, the region took a hit because of travel restrictions in 2020, according to Mary Beth Stutzman, president of the Alpena Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Heading into 2021, however, the towns along Lake Huron are poised to provide much-sought-after getaways as doors reopen, lakeside festivals look promising, and the waves of the local Great Lake call visitors to the great outdoors.

In a good year, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary draws 100,000 people to the area, according to Katie Wolf, Friends of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary liaison.

Many of those visitors didn’t come last year, with the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center doors closed and the season of the Lady Michigan, the glass-bottomed boat operated by the Friends of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, cut in half by COVID-19 restrictions.

“We’re hoping for some smooth sailing this year,” Wolf said.

Wolf is planning on a full season of shipwreck tours this summer, hoping the crowds that travel to Alpena to ride the boat will stick around to enjoy local dining, shopping and lodging.

North of Rogers City, the 40 Mile Point Lighthouse Society last year lost out on the $30,000 to $50,000 — used for lighthouse upkeep — usually generated through donations and gift shop sales.

The lighthouse is a favorite stop of visitors flocking to their northern cottages for the summer, and Pat Williams, a member of the society, is hopeful about the summer of 2021.

“Anything is better than last year, right?” Williams said.

Last year, Rogers City’s Nautical Festival was canceled as a safety measure. The festival is a go for this year, according to Kim Margherio, Rogers City Downtown Development Authority community events director, as are several new events, from a June art walk to a July pirate festival.

A boom of new boaters coming to the Rogers City Marina will give the city another boost, Margherio said.

Alpena’s Michigan Brown Trout Festival, scaled back severely in 2020, is on track for a full showing this summer, officials said.

Harrisville — where the grounds of nearby Sturgeon Point Lighthouse are open for picnics and wandering, even if the lighthouse itself has to remain closed to visitors this summer — wasn’t too hard-hit by last year’s disruptions, according to Mayor Jeff Gehring.

The loss in revenue from canceled events was balanced by a bump in tourism later in the year as downstaters sought the outdoors and visited Up North communities and businesses, Gehring said.

After a rough year financially in 2020 at the old and new Presque Isle lighthouses, staff have ordered new sweatshirts and other gift items, hoping for shopping visitors to make up for the money lost last year when the shops had to close, according to Bev Huard, Presque Isle Township administrative assistant.

“We’re going to go ahead and have a good summer,” Huard said. “That’s our hope.”

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