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Wisconsin tourism grows at steady rate in 2013

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Tourism directors from across the state celebrated a state-funded report released Friday that showed steady spending growth last year in all but six of Wisconsin's 72 counties.

Travelers pumped about $17.5 billion into the state economy, an increase of about 4 percent from the year before, according to the report funded by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

The agency said tourists — including Wisconsin residents on vacation — directly put about $10.8 billion into the economy, up from about $10.3 billion in 2012. The state's 100 million visitors accounted for about $2.3 billion in federal, state and local taxes and directly supported more than 131,000 jobs.

Gov. Scott Walker applauded the latest numbers and said the state should continue investing in marketing to bring visitors to the state.

"The travel and hospitality industry continues to be an important and strong performing sector for Wisconsin's economy," Walker said in a written statement.

Craig Molitor, president of a tourism group in Fond du Lac County, attributed his county's 7.5 percent direct spending growth to a long-term branding the community recently rolled out.

The county hosted a bowling tournament, ice-dancing competition and benefits from the outdoor community's draw to Lake Winnebago, all of which helped grow the industry, Molitor said.

"More people are working, more people are taking home better pay, all of that affects the quality of life," he said.

Fond du Lac also benefits from the fact that 70 percent of the state's residents can get to town within an hour, Molitor said.

Pierce County in western Wisconsin had the largest percentage drop at 6.7 percent, and was joined by other western and southwestern counties that saw tourism slightly decline last year.

Wilson Mills, executive director of the Pierce County Partners in Tourism, questioned the results of the study. Mills, the owner of an apple orchard, said half his customers are from the Twin Cities and his business grew from 2012 to 2013.

"Also, efforts in individual municipalities have continued to expand," he said.

Still, Mills said, the county's tourism department has gone through funding issues in recent years, which could account for some of the decline.

Lodging — including sales of vacation homes as well as hotel and other overnight stays — remained the state's biggest tourism driver, accounting for about 26 percent of all spending. Food and beverage and retail sales rounded out the bulk of tourism spending, the report shows.

The state has seen the industry's growth taper off since 2010, which tourism department communications director Lisa Marshall said reflects a national trend since the recession.

Counties with the biggest tourism spending were Milwaukee, Dane, Sauk, Waukesha, Brown and Walworth.

Counties that saw tourism spending decline were Pierce, Price, Iron, Grant, Lafayette and Trempealeau.

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Follow Taylor W. Anderson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TaylorW.Anderson .

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