Is Michigan finally ready to market itself as an outdoor adventure destination?

kayaking Sleeping BearMichigan may be the Great Lake State, but for decades, our most recognizable outdoors offerings tended to revolve around hunting and fishing, golf, and experiencing nature via motorized equipment like snowmobiles or dune buggies. It’s a legacy I always equated with a certain capitalist cultural mindset linked to our homegrown auto industry.

But things may be changing.

Bridge Magazine, a publication of The Center for Michigan, recently published an interesting story headlined, “As hunting wanes, selling Michigan to a new outdoors generation.”

It contrasts the decline in hunting and fishing licenses, and the younger generations’ apparent waning interest in golf, with the uptick in interest in things like Alpena’s underwater shipwrecks, mountain biking in the Upper Peninsula or paddling a kayak or standup paddleboard on the Great Lakes:

There could be a lesson here for much of Michigan, which seems to be playing catch-up with states out west and even a place like Duluth, Minnesota, in aggressively promoting outdoor assets that speak to a new generation: Think REI instead of Cabela’s.

But it’s more than ecotourism luring visitors and their credit cards to town. Analysts say that communities and states that adjust their outdoor marketing efforts make themselves more attractive to young talent and better positioned for economic development.

5091996603_27fe561137_zMichigan is blessed with incredible natural resources. We have 3,288 miles of coastline, making ours the longest freshwater coastline in the world and second-largest among states after Alaska. We have verdant woodlands, ranging from oak savannahs to northern boreal forests. Ecologically rich sand dunes. Uninhabited islands. Lots of singletrack trails that are perfect for mountain biking or running.

Yet weirdly, we’ve never done a very good job promoting them until recently.

To be clear, I have nothing against hunting or fishing. I recognize that they have an important place in our state’s economy, heritage and environmental conservation. But personally, I’ve always been more interested in the less-heralded recreation opportunities afforded by our distinctive natural assets.

I was recently in Madison, Wis., where I ran along a pedestrian pathway that encircles much of one of the lakes that define the city. I marveled at the huge numbers of cyclists, casual and otherwise, who were attracted to the pathway and other bike-friendly infrastructure apparent all over town, many of them families out for a joyride. What an incredible economic jolt it must be to be known as such a bike-friendly mecca, as Bridge wrote about Marquette:

Bikers beget bike shops, which is why a city of just over 20,000 people has four bike shops. They stay relatively busy even in winter, when fat-tire bikers ride the snow on 60 miles of groomed trails. With all these riders, it’s not surprising Marquette County has six microbreweries.

A Pure Michigan billboard ad.

The state’s highly successful Pure Michigan ad campaign has started to get the memo, running billboards showing images of tent camping in the remote Porcupine Mountains in the western U.P. and images of mountain biking.

It’s a start, but more could and should be done to promote what we have, from under-heralded outdoor mecca towns like Marquette and Copper Harbor to Traverse City and even Muskegon.

Being known as more than a place to ride an ORV or snowmobile could give an economic boost to many of our struggling Up North towns. And who knows — maybe it could even help our notoriously overweight state get out in the elements and embrace better health.

Creative Commons photos by Bailiwick Studios and Kate Sumbler

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