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The latest states' rights battle is for tourists

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Travel Michigan encourages people to escape the pressures of everyday life by vacationing in the Michigan outdoors. The state's national advertising campaign "Pure Michigan" tries to raise awareness of Michigan as a destination hotspot so people will spend their tourist dollars there as the state copes with rising unemployment and a cash-strapped budget. (Photo Courtesy/Travel Michigan)

Watch a sitcom or two these days and there is bound to be a couple of commercials for the state of Michigan. More than a dozen 30-second ads portrays the state as “the land of 10,000 lakes,” a tourist’s paradise, replete with beautiful beaches, lively cities and pristine campgrounds. The tagline at the end of each ad is “Pure Michigan.”

Pure Michigan? These days most television viewers probably think of the state as ground zero in the worst economic slump since the 1930s. Its famous automakers are on the brink of bankruptcy and the state’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation.

But as the travel industry gears up for what promises to be one of the leanest summers in years, Michigan and several other states are shelling out millions of dollars in the face of record budget deficits to attract tourists. The airwaves are punctuated with spots extolling the allure and sex appeal of Missouri, Hawaii, Massachusetts and California.

Travel spending–-hotel stays, souvenirs, tours-–is essential to state economies for both tax revenue and job creation, especially in a time when states find themselves increasingly cash-strapped.

“There can be a trend in this type of market to pull back on making investments in advertising,” said Lisa Simon, the president of the National Travel Association. “Travel Michigan with their ‘Pure Michigan’ campaign realizes they need to boost their state revenue by increasing the amount of tourists.”

Bad as the economy is, industry experts don’t expect most Americans to completely cancel their summer getaway plans. Whether a 10-day vacation is reduced to seven, or a weeklong getaway becomes a weekend at a bed-and-breakfast, many people will still hit the road this year.

“Some people in South Carolina may not go to Arizona or California but stay in the southeast region and take a few days off,” said Neville Bhada, vice president of communications the Southeast Tourism Society, an organization that tracks tourism in 12 southeastern states. It is these new travel patterns that the states hope to influence with their advertising.

But they mostly hope that the advertising will reverse the grim numbers from the last six months of 2008 when travelers—business and recreational—bought fewer airplane tickets, hotel rooms and meals prompting about 200,000 job losses nationwide, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a government agency that tracks consumer spending and the national economy. The steep decline was reminiscent of the period following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when traveling came to almost a complete halt.

There is evidence that advertising works. Michigan is spending a record $30 million—up from $9.1 million in 2007—buying national slots on cable networks like HGTV and TLC in the hopes of making even more money in return. For every dollar Michigan spends on advertising, the state expects to see $2.86 in travel spending, studies show.

“The economy is bad but we’re spending money,” said George Zimmermann, the vice president for Travel Michigan, the state tourism agency. “We have a great product, if people know about us.”

The new commercials are Michigan’s largest appearance on the national stage, billing the state as a backyard getaway. Since tourists spend an estimated $18 billion a year, with tax revenue adding about $1 billion to the state’s $45-billion budget, Zimmermann said, it’s important for the state to keep its name on the nation’s collective brain.

“There are tens of millions of Americans in other parts of the country who know nothing about us as a destination,” he explained “We just don’t come to mind. For a lot of people who don’t have a connection to us the only mental image is the auto industry.” Instead, Zimmermann wants Americans to start thinking about the beaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or the museums and nightlife of Detroit.

Even with the national campaign and the record spending, Michigan isn’t expecting a record number of tourists this year. High gas prices hurt the state’s tourism revenue last summer because many visitors drive from neighboring states. Zimmermann hopes that the advertising campaign will broaden the pool of potential visitors this year. His modest goal is not to increase tourism revenue but simply to break even with 2008’s already low numbers.

Other states have the same idea about wooing Americans who are thinking about more modest vacations than in the past. To keep tourists coming to its Gulf Coast, Alabama is playing up its “affordability factor” for families, said Brian Jones, a regional director of marketing for the tourism department.

California, a seemingly obvious destination for many holiday makers, is continuing to advertise heavily—despite a $42 billion budget deficit that led to a statewide furlough of state employees and near bankruptcy. Tourist dollars are essential for the state, where the travel industry is larger than the motion picture, agriculture and software industries, according to the California Travel and Tourism Commission. The agency is anticipating a decline of about 7 percent in travel spending this year, a majority of which will come from in-state tourism. So it aims to use advertising to lure tourists from competitors like New York and Florida.

“In this recession we know that domestic travelers that would go international will stay in country and hopefully go to California,” said Susan Wilcox, the vice president for communication at the CTTC.

In an ad that plays off the notion of a laid back beach lifestyle, California sells itself to those who like to work hard and play hard by featuring “board meetings” (snowboarding, skateboarding and surfboarding) and “pencil pushers” (golf course tallying). Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, sign off saying, “if California seems like your kind of work, we’ve got just one question—when can you start?”

E-mail: hf2198@columbia.edu