For Resort Towns, This Could Be a Cruel Summer

For Dan Dhooghe, a summer isn’t complete without family trips to the Wisconsin Dells. The self-proclaimed “Waterpark Capital of the World” has offered generations of Midwestern kids, including Dhooghe’s two boys, an enticing combination of water slides, fudge shops, duck boats, and kitschy entertainment, like Tommy Bartlett’s water ski and jumping boat thrill show.  

Dhooghe, a retired deputy police chief in Aurora, Illinois, and his wife, Linda, have made this central Wisconsin destination their annual vacation spot for the last 20 years. Sons Jason, 23, and Sean, 21, have long since traded amusement rides for golf courses, but they still look forward to spending a week or two unwinding at the family’s condo at the Wilderness on the Lake resort.

This year, the Dhooghes, like so many families, find their seasonal escape uncertain at best.

“It would be nice to be able to get away, but with this pandemic, you can’t go anywhere, no matter where your vacation home is,” he says. “It’s frustrating; you just can’t make any plans.”

The American summer vacation is in limbo, caught between a pandemic and a patchwork of policies attempting to balance sagging economies and public health risks. With spring gone and summer in peril, towns that rely on tourism dollars face an unprecedented economic challenge.

Emina Cardamone, director of forecasting for Tourism Economics, says she’s “never seen a decline like this” in the travel sector. Her firm’s baseline estimate for the U.S. travel industry is a 45% drop in business, or $651 billion in lost revenue. The American economy might be headed to a recession, but the travel industry is already in a depression, says Tori Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association. Last year, the industry employed more than 15 million people; by May 1 this year, this sector had already shed 8 million jobs.

Wisconsin tourism secretary-designee Sara Meaney says that the state as a whole has already lost $1.75 billion in tourism revenue this year. But getting the region’s vacation economy back on the road to recovery stands be more complicated than merely lifting stay-at-home rules. Governor Tony Evers’ orders closing businesses statewide had been set to expire May 26 but were struck down by the State Supreme Court on May 12, setting off a rush of planning by business owners to figure out how to, and if they should, reopen. (Some bars in the state opened immediately) Cases statewide have trended up since then, with 2,802 new cases in the week after the orders were lifted, with a new daily record of 528 reported on May 20.

For communities like the Wisconsin Dells, it’s far from clear when people will again feel comfortable in places like waterparks, theaters, and other attractions. Is an open sign enough? In the absence of clear government and health department orders, it’s been left to consumers to decide if it’s safe to load the family in the minivan.

Right now the Wisconsin Dells region, including the small city of Wisconsin Dells and towns like Baraboo, would have typically been coming off a busy spring break season, and gearing up for Memorial Day weekend. Within a few hours drive of cities like Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee, the area functions as one of the Midwest’s vacation engines. In 2019, the Dells posted its highest tourism earnings ever, $1.2 billion, according to Romy Snyder, CEO and president of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau.

“It’s become a generational thing,“ Snyder says, “Grandparents who came here in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s a real pleasure for them to bring their grandchildren and give them a glimpse of something they enjoyed as a kid.”

A woman slides down the Mt. Olympus waterslide at Wisconsin Dells, the self-proclaimed “Waterpark Capital of the World.” (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Instead, as Darren Hornby, executive director of the Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce, told a local paper, hotel occupancy is “close to nonexistent.” Chula Vista Resort plans to be the first to open its indoor water park on Friday, May 22, the start of Memorial Day weekend, Mt. Olympus Hotel and amusement park plans to welcome guests May 23, with others following in the coming weeks. Paul Schaller, a senior vice president at the Bank of Wisconsin Dells, which mostly serves the small mom and pop businesses that make up the bulk of the local economy, says they’ve already sent out $35 million in loans to 314 area businesses, via the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the federal government’s efforts to save small businesses.

“A full shutdown in an area like this is catastrophic,” he says. “Spring break is three to five weeks of business, which they won’t get back. We’re probably going to miss Memorial Day weekend, too. These are key, critical periods.”

The loss of tourism income ripples out across regions that depend on the industry, according to Chris Pike, an economic development analyst at Tourism Economics. When tourism shuts down, the businesses that serve those businesses — the bankers, printers, cleaners — all suffer. The combination of a loss in sales and lodging taxes, and a loss of income taxes, leads to a second wave of unemployment.

Rick Wilcox, owner of a popular magic theater and attraction on Wisconsin Dells Parkway, a main strip lined with other attractions, had to cancel his spring break shows, and hasn’t performed tricks publicly since businesses were ordered closed on March 25 (he’s been doing a daily magic show on the company website to entertain fans). “A lot of people are canceling their vacation plans, and I don’t blame them,” he says. “We really don’t know what’s going to happen yet. Most of the people living in this town run a tourism business, and if nobody comes this summer, a lot are going to go out of business.”

Even with the courts invalidating the governor’s stay at home order, he won’t immediately open his doors. He says he’s figured out ways to run a show in the 600-person theater by spacing out seating and eliminating any potentially dangerous audience interaction. But he needs potential customers in town to justify the cost.

“What business?” he says. “It’s a ghost town here.”

State tourism secretary Snyder says that Dells waterparks like Noah’s Ark and Kalahari, part of larger national chains, are working to deliver a safe experience to guests (neither would speak to CityLab), but it all ultimately depends on when families feel comfortable returning. A recent outbreak of coronavirus in a dorm meant for seasonal vacation industry workers didn’t inspire confidence.

“The Dells is the waterpark capital of the world for a reason,” says Meaney. “It’s a highly regulated industry, and all these businesses understand their livelihoods depend on protecting their customers.”

But state guidelines on reducing capacity and sanitizing rides between each use, along with policy suggestions put forth by the U.S. Travel Association, won’t bring people back to vacation towns if guests aren’t ready. Dhooghe and his family are wary, but he says he’ll rely on government guidance to decide if he should come.

“If the local authorities say it’s cool, we’ll head up there, as soon as we get the word to go,” he said a few days before the court’s decision. “We’ll wear masks and be socially distant, and as long as everybody else is doing the same, we’ll go on with the new normal.”

A family enjoys the beach at Silver Sands State park in Milford, Connecticut. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Plenty of other households that have made commitments to visit beach rentals and theme parks and other summer attractions are similarly clinging to their hopes. But the medium-term future of the family vacation remains deeply uncertain. And when summer destinations do reopen, they might well be transformed by the pandemic and the economic disruption it’s brought. Tourism Economics’s Cardamone says that any extended slowdown will threaten the colorful mom and pop retailers that define resort-town culture, potentially leading to consolidation. But there also may be an upside for lesser-trafficked destinations that can offer space and seclusion.

That’s the new pitch coming from Wisconsin state tourism, according to Meaney, which has changed its message to highlight the outdoors and the state’s natural resources, pushing the state’s forests, roughly 15,000 lakes, and outdoor recreation activities. The Dells region may benefit by pushing stays at nearby Devils’s Lake State Park. Camping revenue won’t come close to making up for lost dollars at theme parks, however.  

Omer Rabin, a managing director for the Americas at Guesty, a global property management platform, has a guess as to what may happen to the traditional summer vacation. Like so many other events on the 2020 calendar, summer might just be pushed back a few months. His firm is seeing record-setting advance bookings for the winter holiday season, including a 40% increase for Christmas reservations. Families are booking big houses in places like the Catskills in New York, Tahoe, or Napa Valley — markets within driving distance from big cities — for two-to-three week blocks, hoping to get multiple generations together. The optimistic assumption: By wintertime, it might finally be safe to be a tourist again.

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In Japan’s Vanishing Rural Towns, Newcomers Are Wanted

On a recent afternoon in the rural Japanese town of Kanna-machi, all seemed well. Children splashed in the town’s namesake river; their parents relaxed nearby at a bankside summer beer garden. A gaggle of laughing teenagers in muddy uniforms strolled home along the town’s main road after an afternoon baseball practice. Set against lush mountain views, life here seems idyllic.

But Kanna-machi, deep in Japan’s central Gunma Prefecture, is living on borrowed time. It’s set to be among the first municipal victims of Japan’s demographic trajectory.

The phenomenon is called shoushikoureika—the combined effects of an aging population, anemic birthrate, and surging demand for social services. Japan’s population is set to lose up to one-third of its population, down to 88 million people, by 2065. In 2017, fewer than 1 million babies were born in Japan, the smallest number ever recorded—until 2018, when the country handily beat the previous year’s low. In 2016, the nation’s population declined 330,786, the seventh straight year of decrease, and the largest year-over-year drop since such record-keeping began in 1968—until 2018, when a population decline of 449,000 was recorded. Census figures show a population contraction of almost 1 million people since 2010.

Within Japan, other demographic shifts are transforming society. Young residents are leaving the countryside in droves and concentrating in larger cities. Political science professor Hisakazu Kato of Meiji University refers to this as a “pole society,” with major urban centers such as Tokyo and Osaka drawing in younger people as rural areas empty out. Overall population decline is then exacerbated by the precipitously low birthrates in these metropolises. Tokyo residents have the fewest babies the country, for instance, despite their relative affluence and job opportunities, thanks in part to a lack of child-care spaces and social services, as well as the grueling schedules many urban Japanese workers pursue.

With fewer young people and a glut of elderly residents—among the longest-lived in the world—many rural towns appear to be locked into a demographic death spiral. If current trends continue, by 2040, 869 municipalities—nearly half of Japan’s total—will be at risk of vanishing, according to the Japan Policy Council. As many as 80 percent of municipalities in some prefectures may disappear over the next 40 years, their populations having shrunk beyond the point of viability.

The impacts of this demographic polarization are already evident, in the hundreds of towns and hamlets known as genkai shūraku—“marginal villages”—where most residents are elderly. In rural prefectures, millions of homes and properties have been abandoned; some homes sit empty even in the Tokyo suburbs.

But many towns and cities facing debilitating long-term depopulation are resisting their fate. They’re deploying a series of aggressive, homegrown approaches to roll back this seemingly inexorable trend in a bid to survive—and perhaps even grow.

To fight population decline: tourists, mascots, and beer gardens

Located 70 miles northwest of Tokyo in the central Kanto Region, Kanna-machi is on the forefront on this demographic reckoning, and for years it’s been a poster child for towns threatened with disappearance. As of March of this year, the town has just 1,840 residents, 59 percent of whom are over age 65. It’s Japan’s second-oldest town, demographically speaking. Nearby Nanmoku is the oldest.

Accessible via a single—if immaculately maintained and scenic—road, Kanna is bordered by lush mountains and is built along the banks of its namesake river. As in many small communities in Japan, economic opportunities here are limited: The bulk of local employment comes from mountaintop limestone mining, agriculture, and, in the Japanese tradition, pork-barrel construction projects funded by the national government.

Kanna boasts a few modest general stores, a bakery, a watch repair shop, and an onsen, or traditional Japanese-style hot spring. In stark contrast to the hustle, noise, and glittering hyper-modernity of Tokyo, Kanna seems to turn itself in early for the night. At 5 p.m., the town’s public-address system plays the town’s traditional quitting song—here, it’s the “Colonel Bogey March” from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Time to go home.

For Kanna, the loss of its young people occurs early. Upon completing middle school, top performing students generally undertake their high school studies at more prestigious schools in the prefecture’s major cities of Maebashi and Takasaki. A university education even further afield then follows. From there, few return to Kanna.

Tomomi Saito, 31, is an exception to this trend. She returned to Kanna full-time after completing her studies at the Takasaki City University of Economics to work as an educational assistant before joining the town office as an administrator with the Board of Education. “I want to maintain Kanna’s pride in itself,” she told me when asked why she came back to her tiny hometown. She cited the town’s scenery and rich culture, and the relaxed pace of life here compared to Japan’s major cities.

Saito is not alone in that regard—the town has welcomed a 28-year old tourism coordinator and a recently graduated nurse to join Kanna’s medical clinic. But for every returnee a small town such as Kanna receives, others leave permanently to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

Among the fundamental challenges for rural towns: transportation and lack of economic opportunities. Kanna technically sits just outside the border of the massive Greater Tokyo Area, but the nearest train station is an hour away by car. And non-tourism jobs in the area are largely limited to low-paying agriculture, construction, and mining work. Kanna is hard-pressed to compete with larger cities for better paying, white-collar positions.

Fifteen years ago, when the issue of declining populations first came to prominence, a spate of town mergers occurred as a stopgap measure. Adjoining villages were melded into a larger municipal body; the former town councils and services consolidated into a new central bureaucracy for so-called merger towns. Kanna-machi itself is the result of such an amalgamation of two smaller villages in 2003. The well has run dry on that particular solution, however: Were Kanna to merge again, its only options are two modest towns to its north and south; both are more than 20 kilometers away.

So Kanna has had to be creative. Beginning in 2009, the town began trying harder to leverage its striking natural surroundings and local history in the hopes of expanding its modest local tourism sector.

Kanna’s springtime Koinburo festival drew about 20,000 visitors last year. (Allan Richarz/CityLab)

The remote mountain location that keeps Kanna isolated could also be its economic salvation. In the fall, day-trippers flock to the area as the leaves begin to change color. During the country’s Golden Week celebrations last spring, more than 20,000 revelers came to Kanna’s Koinobori festival, which featured hundreds of carp-shaped streamers decorating the village and countryside. In the summer, a riverside beer garden and campground have proven to be a popular draw, thanks to unusually oppressive heat last year in Japan. The town also hosts the Kanna Mountain Run and Walk, a grueling 26-kilometer mountain marathon course that attracts participants from across the country and abroad.

To fuel its visitor appeal, the town is emphasizing its most unique attraction: dinosaurs. Kanna is near the site of the first fossilized dinosaur footprints found in Japan. In 1987, a sprawling dinosaur museum opened on the riverside near the town’s center, with a major renovation completed in May of this year. The museum marked visitor number 1,111,111 this past summer. There’s a massive fossil dominating the lobby of the town hall, and local craftsmen turn out increasing numbers of handmade model dinosaurs. A new town mascot, the perpetually cheerful Saurus-kun, furthers the dinosaur angle through his many media appearances.

Indeed, Saurus-kun has proven to be something of a breakout star for Kanna: His “character goods”—plushies, pins, stationery and the like—frequently sell out, according to town officials. One particularly sought-after memento by tourists are the dinosaur-shaped business cards issued to town employees—something of a sensation in the generally staid world of Japanese officialdom.

Even the winding mountain road leading to Kanna has been turned into an attraction: It holds one of Japan’s newest “melody roads”—a stretch of specially grooved asphalt whose vibrations play a tune when driven over. If you’re driving into town at exactly 28 mph, you’ll hear the traditional Japanese folk tune “Koinobori” singing through your tires.

A different tack: foreign recruitment

About 480 miles away from Kanna, the city of Izumo is taking a different, perhaps more radical approach to ensuring its long-term viability: an aggressive campaign to recruit foreign residents, particularly Portuguese speakers, to the city.

Izumo City is a town of 175,000 residents in the southern prefecture of Shimane—the second-least populous in Japan. It’s perhaps best known as the home of Izumo-taisha, Japan’s oldest Shinto shrine. Izumo faces competition for its young residents from larger nearby cities like Hiroshima; as with Kanna-machi, it is itself a merger town, having joined with the former town of Kamogawa in 2011. Thanks in part to this consolidation, Izumo has so far managed to avoid the precipitous population declines experienced elsewhere in the country. Overall population figures have remained remarkably flat over the last three decades, with only minor variances from year to year.

To further combat its demographic malaise, the city in 2016 launched an unusual plan in historically insular Japan: Dubbed the Multicultural Living Promotion Plan, the initiative sought to increase the number of long-term foreign residents in the city to 30 percent by 2021 through an aggressive recruitment and retention campaign. Online digital advertisements targeted Brazilian-born residents of Japan, owing to historic ties between the two countries. The city launched a Portuguese-language Facebook page, Curta Izumo. Local employers also began outreach. Photos of a Portuguese-language job advertisement—a rarity in Japan—went viral last year on Twitter. According to town spokesperson Hiroyuki Tachibana, similar English-language campaigns were undertaken by the city as well.

Thanks to these efforts, the town was able to meet its recruitment target early this year—two years ahead of schedule. The success in attracting Portuguese residents in particular was so rapid, in fact, that the town is now scrambling to expand its Portuguese-language services to residents. It is part of the slowly growing accommodation for non-Japanese speakers in the country.

In addition to the digital outreach, Tachibana credits the appeal of Izumo’s relaxed lifestyle, compared to the more hectic page of larger cities, as well as its natural offerings. But he remains circumspect on whether other towns will follow suit: “I do not know if [other cities] will use the Izumo model,” in attempting to woo new foreign residents, he said.

Indeed, despite the aging crisis and declining birthrate—and the severe labor crunch those conditions have brought with them—Japan has been reluctant to tap into immigration as a solution, emphasizing instead various birthrate-boosting countermeasures. A new skilled worker visa program designed to bring in foreign-born laborers saw only a handful of recipients this year. As worries of gai-atsu—foreign influence—linger, the Izumo model may prove a tough sell, despite its evident success.

Meanwhile, Japan’s overall population trajectory remains firmly fixed on its worrying course: Preliminary government figures from the first half of 2019 showed that the number of new babies born in the country had the sharpest drop in 30 years.

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