Over Tourism on The Long Way Home

Am I qualified to express an opinion on the North Shore economy?  

I’m not an economist. I suffer from a K-12 public school education and the exhilarating lifetime of experience brokering freight transportation and putting my opinions in writing. With that disclaimer out of the way I can add that other than being a tourist from time to time, I don’t know much about the so-called tourism industry. 

While researching the current state of Short Term Vacation Rentals (STR) on the North Shore I came across a new word ( a new one to me)--Overtourism. It is defined on the website www.responsiblevacation.com. “Overtourism occurs when there are too many visitors to a particular destination … When rent prices push out local tenants to make way for vacation rentals, that is overtourism. When narrow roads become jammed with tourist vehicles, that is overtourism. When wildlife is scared away, when tourists cannot view landmarks because of the crowds, when fragile environments become degraded – these are all signs of overtourism.”

I’m not a part of the “in-crowd” of the tourism industry on the North Shore, but I’ve not heard anything from tourism leaders or government officials that would indicate anyone is concerned about tourism exceeding its growth limits.  In fact, Cook County tourism leaders recently secured legislation in the state capital that retains the “Lodging Tax” that funds tourism promotion efforts for an additional 15 years. In case you’re wondering, that’ll be millions of dollars spent promoting this wonderful part of the world to potential visitors.

My own business experience, in small markets and large markets, taught me that growth is always limited, whether by the capacity of the market or the capacity of the organization and the people leading it. I learned that you ignore that teaching at your peril.

The North Shore was settled and developed by people who were in the fishing and logging industry. The market for those commodities was large enough to sustain and build a vibrant community until it wasn’t. As transportation allowed, tourism was added to the economic mix. A shirttail relative of mine, fisherman Ole Brunes out of Chicago Bay, built a small hotel in what is now Hovland over a century ago. 

During the 20th century, families built and operated resorts on the shore and on inland lakes to make a living off tourism. Many of those resorts have closed as the economics changed or the government claimed properties (See BWCA). 

By the middle of the last century, tourism was enhanced by the arts. Grand Marais became a magnet for artists of all stripes, and those artists contributed mightily to the prosperity Grand Marais enjoys as “The Coolest Small Town in America.” Grand Marais’ arts success serves as a model for small towns around the country, if not the world, for how to build a tourism economy to replace whatever they had that no longer was growing. Art and craft education centers are everywhere now.

When we moved to Grand Marais in the 90s, tourists started arriving around Memorial Day and all but disappeared at Labor Day--except for the fall color season which brought the newlyweds and nearly deads. Snowmobilers, downhill, and skinny ski folks came in the snowy months in much smaller numbers than they do today. With the effective promotion of Visit Cook County, the summer season crowd is almost overwhelming and visitors are here in numbers almost year-round.

Homes that once served as rental homes for local workers and families are now serving as STRs. Traffic in Grand Marais, and the surrounding attractions, can be horrendous. The pandemic years saw campers overnighting along rural roads, creating public safety hazards and dumping trash and holding tanks where they sat. 

Restaurants and retail businesses operate with restricted hours due to the lack of staffing needed to serve customers. The hospital ambulance service is strapped for first responders and EMTs now, and the season will increase the population exponentially putting public safety in further danger.

Like overfishing and overlogging, the effects of overtourism are evident. We suffer from OVERTOURISM. And no one is talking about it. 


  1. Good observations Steve…
    Add 2 factors .. with reduction of Covid isolation which is pushing demand and Increase in population and crazy increase in gas prices….you get the overtourism result . … and don’t forget recent closings of campsites in the boundary waters due to high water…. Which also adds pressure on the remaining tourism locations …./
    Time to start your own guide service and take those tourists to the woods snd show um what nAture is really like!
    You could make up all kinds of great stories about life in the north woods.!
    Keep up the good work !!!

  2. Good one. Any comps in the US that have reversed the trend?

  3. Add to that the almost constant rumble of automobiles, delivery vehicles, construction dump trucks and the annoying whine of off road vehicles driving on the road that winds through what once was a quiet, serene wilderness and I could not agree more. Overtourism.

  4. Yes, yes and yes Steve! I remember having a conversation with the EDA now some twenty years back asking about sustainable growth and the time when people who served the community could not afford to live in the community..... and here we are! Overtourism is a thing. Lessons in diversity.... all the economic eggs in one basket....

  5. Good words, Steve - we need tourism 12 months a year, but the months of June, July and August are painful for everyone. If we could get more on the shoulder seasons that would be awesome, then the restaurants wouldn't have to close in October, November and April. I'm on the VCC board and would love to have a further discussion! I believe the current growth is not sustainable.

  6. From one “nearly dead” to the author of this well written researched article I say…Good Piece…..Godspeed!

  7. Sorry Steve, maybe you don’t read the comments that I read, but the topic of STRs is all over the place. It’s locals who run the city. Put pressure on folks whose job is to make the rules.


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