ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota's $11 billion travel and leisure industry continues to creep out of the recession, but experts said there could be obstacles ahead, including a government shutdown.
The president of Hospitality Minnesota, Dan McElroy, told the St. Cloud Times (http://bit.ly/lxtU2O ) for a report Friday that a strong Memorial Day opened the state's travel season.
"What I'm hearing from members is that Memorial Day weekend was better than the last three years," McElroy said. "Some of members are telling me that they are starting to hire, so that's promising."
McElroy, the former leader of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, now leads an umbrella group for the state's resort and campground, lodging and restaurant associations.
"For June, July and August, virtually everybody said their advance reservations are ahead of last year," McElroy said. "August is a little ahead of last year. It's too early to project a trend (in bookings) through fall."
Hotel stays in Minnesota through the first quarter of the year showed a 5.7 percent gain over the first quarter of 2009, but he said consumers remain concerned about costs.
"We're seeing our restaurant members telling us that the numbers of guests is increasing but the average check is not increasing," McElroy said. "The customers continue to be value conscious. They might be coming in for the early-bird special, looking for bargains. But at least they're back, and that's good news."
If all goes according to plan, the state's tourism office is forecasting modest growth this summer. And summer matters, accounting for about 37 percent of total leisure and hospitality spending in Minnesota.
"I think we're going to see a continued, gradual recovery. We're not back to where we were three years ago, but we're definitely on the right track," said John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism.
However, there are the usual worries for the tourism industry, including shaky hiring numbers, unstable gas prices and unpredictable weather. But this year there's the added concern that the Legislature and the governor won't agree on a state budget by June 30, which could shut down parts of the state government.
McElroy said about 75,000-80,000 jobs — of the 2.6 million jobs in the state — are at risk from a shutdown, McElroy said. "We're worried," he said.
The impact on tourism would vary by region, McElroy said, "but we're concerned, particularly along the North Shore where those six state parks along (U.S.) Highway 61 are a big part of the draw."
Those are some of the state's premier parks — Split Rock, Gooseberry Falls, Tettegouche, George Crosby Manitou, Temperance River and Cascade River. If those parks, and Judge C.R. Magney and Grand Portage farther north, were to close, businesses in the area would suffer.
"Some of my members are very worried about that," McElroy said.
In addition, a shutdown could close rest areas and make travel more inconvenient, he said. Further, state employees would be less likely to travel.
Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com