The Ecocenter as Tourist Attraction:
Ely and the International Wolf Center

David T. Schaller
Department of Geography
University of Minnesota

Section 4: Tourism in the Ely Area

In order to understand the role of the International Wolf Center in Ely tourism, we must first have a general picture of tourism in the area. This section offers both this necessary exposition as well as a look at some details of tourism visitation. The main areas of focus are crude economic impacts, visitor demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, and vacation behavior. Tourism is clearly a dominant economic and social activity in the Ely area, though competing estimates of the number of tourists to visit Ely annually make it difficult even to approximate its economic impact. The Ely Chamber of Commerce estimates 250,000 visitors a year, while estimates derived from this study range around 160,000.1 (This latter figure, however, does not include cabin owners who spend more than one month per year in the area.) If, as the survey indicates, tourists spends an average of $110 during their stay, total tourist expenditures range between $18 million and $27 million. The IMPLAN input-output model indicates a multiplier of about 2.2 for tourism-related activities. For St. Louis and Lake counties, then, a crude estimate of total regional effects generated by tourism might range from $40 to $60 million. As noted previously, Ely's main tourist attractions are the area's lakes and forests. The main activities which draw tourists to the area are fishing, canoeing, and camping (Table 1). Other reasons for visiting Ely include hiking, visiting the IWC, and, in the winter, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.

Table 1.--Main Reason for Visiting Ely
All Ely Tourists











Relaxing/Being with family or friends


Winter Sports




*Includes shopping, sightseeing, etc.

The economic impact a tourist may have on her destination area depends in large part on where she chooses to sleep. Resorts charge an average of $60 to $65 per night for a cabin or room, most motels charge about $50 to $55, and campgrounds charge between $8 and $20 per night. Sleeping in the backcountry costs visitors nothing. The choice a tourist makes for lodging is, in turn, affected in part by her reason for visiting Ely. A look at the two main activities which draw tourists to Ely reveals this clearly (Table 2). Respondents who cited fishing as their main reason for visiting Ely were most likely to stay at a lake resort, while the majority of canoeists stayed in the backcountry.


Table 2.--Type of Lodging According to Type of Tourist

Type of Accommodation

Fishermen (217)

Canoeists (209)










Private Cabin






Day Trip



Home of friend/relative



These results would suggest that fishermen have a much greater economic impact on the area than do canoeists, since they must pay more for their lodging. Indeed, fishing parties spend twice as much in the area as do canoeing parties (Table 3). Nevertheless, fishermen account for only 43% of all tourist expenditures in the Ely area, compared to 34% for canoeists. This difference is smaller than might be expected, partly because nearly 30% of canoeists cite motels, B&Bs; or campgrounds as their main type of lodging. Also, many canoeists who camp in the backcountry may also rent a room or cabin before or after their backcountry trip. Among backcountry campers (not strictly canoeists), 36% said they spent at least one night in a motel, B&B; or resort in the Ely area, and another 17% said they stayed in a campground in addition to their time in the backcountry. The average stay at these lodgings was 1.5 nights.

Table 3.--Tourist Expenditures by Type of Tourist


Median expenditures per person per day

Median group expenditures

Percentage of all tourist expenditures

Fishermen (217)




Canoeists (209)




Campers (92)




Hikers (44)




Other* (86)




All Ely Tourists




*Skiers, snowmobilers, tourists in Ely to relax, or to see family, friends or the IWC.

The majority (59%) of Ely tourists are Minnesota residents, and almost half (47%) of all tourists traveled less than 300 miles to visit Ely. Over 28% of all tourists came from the Twin Cities metropolitan area. However, tourists also came from all parts of the United States, and from several foreign countries as well, including Germany and Australia. Figure 1 displays tourist origins.2 Clearly, Ely is predominantly a regional attraction. About half of all tourists represented here are from Minnesota. The nearby states of Iowa, Wisconsin, and northern Illinois are the sources for another large proportion of tourists.

Figure 1.--Tourist Origins

Source: International Wolf Center Visitor's Register 1995

Despite the regional nature of visitation, Ely is also a national destination. Every state including Alaska and Hawaii (though not shown here) is represented, and there are several notable concentrations, such as Colorado's Front Range, in areas more than 1000 miles away. Texas and Florida are surprisingly well represented, perhaps by retirees, either traveling the country in recreational vehicles or visiting family in Minnesota. Although the map indicates that high percentages of tourists come from urban areas, this may merely be due to higher population densities in those areas. A map which normalizes the data by population is necessary to show whether higher percentages of tourists come from certain areas (Figure 2).

Figure 2.--Tourist Origins: Midwest

Source: International Wolf Center Visitor's Register 1995
Location Quotient=Area's share of regional tourists/Area's share of regional populatin

Clearly, the strength of tourist source areas decreases with distance, though virtually all of Minnesota remains very well represented. It is interesting to compare the high proportions of Ely tourists from the central cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul with low representation from central Chicago. The difference probably reflects socio-economic differences between the two urban populations which affect recreation choices. In contrast, Chicago's suburbs are very well represented, especially considering the distance tourists must travel. The median distance traveled for all Ely tourists was 375 miles, but fishermen and canoeists were apt to come from more distant places while campers (and hikers, with a median distance traveled of 255 miles) were more likely to live closer to Ely (Figure 3). These differences may point to the BWCA's reputation as a premier destination for fishing and canoeing. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of fishermen and canoeists traveled more than 1000 miles to visit Ely, testifying to the area's national stature.

Figure 3.--Distance Traveled to Ely
By Type of Tourist

Similarly, tourists who stayed at resorts and in the backcountry tended to travel greater distances to visit the Ely area. The median distance traveled by resort guests was 550 miles, and for backcountry visitors it was 425 miles--both much higher than the median of 375 miles for all visitors. Perhaps as a result of these longer distances traveled, fishermen and canoeists tended to stay longer than did other tourists once in the Ely area. The median length of stay for all tourists was five nights, with fishermen and canoeists staying for five and six nights, respectively, while campers and hikers stayed for a median of only three nights. Socioeconomic profiles also vary depending on the type of vacation taken. The most notable differences are in education (Figure 4). Among the four groups analyzed, fishermen tend to have lower levels of education than do the others. Canoeists have the highest education levels, with 39% indicating graduate school work, compared to 19% for fishermen and 30% and 32% for hikers and campers, respectively. Fishermen, however, more closely resemble profiles for the population of Minnesota as a whole than do other kinds of tourists. About 22% of state residents 25 years and older have a college degree (1990 Census of Population and Housing:88); for fishermen the figure is twice that (44%), while for canoeists it is more than three times that percentage (70%).

It is interesting to note that higher education does not fully translate into higher incomes (Figure 5). While only 19% of fishermen had undertaken graduate work, 34% of all fishermen had household incomes of $60,000 or more (almost a 1:2 ratio); compare this to canoeists, of whom 39% had graduate school experience, yet only 42% had household incomes $60,000 or more (nearly a 1:1 ratio).

All of these groups, however, have substantially higher income profiles than does the state-wide population (Figure 6). Almost 45% of state households have incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 annually, and less than 45% have annual household incomes greater than $40,000 (1990 Census of Population:78). In contrast, among fishermen and campers, 65% have household incomes of more than $40,000, and for canoeists the figure is 74%. Clearly, Ely tourists have higher incomes as well as higher levels of education than does the state population as a whole. Furthermore, Ely tourists have higher income levels than do tourists throughout the state (residents and non-residents). These higher incomes, then, are associated not just with tourists, but with tourists to Ely.

1990 Census of Population, Social and Economic Characteristics:78
Minnesota Office of Tourism Customer Profile

Tourists are also distinguished according to the types of lodging at which they stay (Table 4). Since each lodging type best accommodates certain activities, some of the results of this type of analysis are not surprising. For example, 63% of those visiting the backcountry cited canoeing as their main activity. Resorts clearly cater to fishermen, while motels/B&Bs; were the only type of lodging where winter sports were cited as the top activity by more than 10% of guests.

Table 4.--Most Popular Activities by Type of Lodging


Most Popular Activity

Second Most Popular Activity

Resort (216)

Fishing (52%)

Canoeing (15%)

Backcountry (191)

Canoeing (63%)

Fishing/Camping (12% each)

Campground (69)

Fishing (33%)

Camping (30%)

Motel/B&B; (71)

Winter sports (19%)

IWC (17%)

Private Cabin (40)

Fishing (36%)

Canoeing (17%)

Guests of Friends/Family (14)


Relaxing/Socializing (20%)

Day Trip (33)

Fishing (51%)

Canoeing (8%)

Because most tourists in Ely engage in outdoor activities, the seasons also affect vacation behavior (Table 5). Winter season tourists, for example, tend not to travel as great a distance to visit Ely, nor do they stay as long. Some 79% of winter tourists live within 400 miles of Ely, compared to 52% for summer tourists and 68% for spring and fall tourists. Only 6% live more than 1000 miles away, compared to 15% for those traveling in the spring, summer and fall. Once in Ely, only 11% stay more than three nights, compared to 67% of summer tourists and 36% of spring/fall tourists. These differences are probably due to several factors. The school year encourages longer summer vacations, and summer vacations in Ely are more popular, since most people prefer to camp, canoe and fish when the weather is warm.

Table 5.--Seasonal Differences in Vacation Behavior


Median Distance

Median Number of Nights

Median Dollars/Party

Median Dollars/ Person/Day

Summer Tourists (474)





Spring/Fall Tourists (104)





Winter Tourists (55)





Although off-season (winter, spring and fall) tourists spend less money in Ely than do summer visitors, the difference is less than one might expect considering their shorter lengths of stay. Furthermore, personal daily expenditures are one-third higher for winter tourists--undoubtedly because the great majority of winter visitors prefer to pay for the pleasure of eating and sleeping indoors. Indeed, motels and B&Bs account for 31% of winter lodging business, compared to 8% in the summer. For obvious reasons, campgrounds and the backcountry drop from 45% in the summer to 34% in the spring and fall to a mere 7% in the winter. In all seasons, however, resorts dominate, providing 34% of all lodging in the summer, 28% in the spring and fall, and 40% in the winter.

The activities which draw tourists to Ely in the spring and fall are not markedly different from those which are main attractions in the summer. Fishing and canoeing remain most popular, cited as their main activity by 25% and 27% of respondents, respectively. Hiking, however, rose in popularity from 4% to 12%, mainly at the expense of fishing and canoeing. Winter tourists, of course, go to Ely for very different activities (Table 6).

Table 6.--Winter Activities

Cross-country skiing




Winter Camping


Relaxing/Family or Friends


International Wolf Center


Ice Fishing




*Includes a hockey tournament, dogsledding, shopping, etc.

Off-season tourists tend to have levels of education and income roughly similar to those of summer visitors. The most notable difference concerns graduate school work; only 24% of off-season tourists have graduate experience compared to 32% for summer tourists. Once again, though, higher education levels are not synonymous with higher incomes. More winter tourists are high-income; 85% have household incomes of more than $40,000, compared to 74% (summer) and 63% (spring/fall) for tourists in warmer months. This may be due to the more expensive nature of a winter vacation, since fewer tourists enjoy low-cost camping in the winter than in the summer.

Unlike many vacation destinations of national repute, such as Yellowstone National Park (Cooperative Extension Service 1989:2), Ely and the BWCA rely to a great extent on repeat business. Half (51%) of all Ely tourists sampled reported a previous visit to the area since June 1993.1 Canoeists (54%) and fishermen (53%) were most likely to have recently visited Ely, compared to 47% for hikers and only 33% for campers. These differences are all the more interesting considering that canoeists and fishermen are more likely to travel longer distances to visit Ely. Indeed, many of those tourists who had traveled 600 miles or more were Ely regulars, with 45% reporting a recent previous visit. In the same vein, resort guests (56%) and backcountry visitors (56%) were likely to have recently visited the area. Only tourists staying at private cabins (66%) showed a higher return rate, though even their rate is not as high as might be expected. Tourists staying at motels/B&Bs; (43%) and with family or friends (33%) appeared least likely to be Ely regulars.

Of all the approaches to the question of repeat visits, a seasonal analysis shows the most pronounced differences. Among summer tourists, 49% had been to Ely in the preceding two years, but the proportion rises to 73% for winter visitors. Since Ely draws from a smaller "tourism shed" in the winter, it seems logical that people living relatively close would be more likely to have visited the area in the recent past.

1Two methods of estimation were used to determine these figures.
1) Survey results indicate that about 30% of all Ely tourists visit the IWC. Since 48,000 people visited the IWC in 1995, total Ely tourists would number 160,000.
2) About 30% of all Ely tourists spent the majority of their vacation in the BWCA backcountry. According to U.S. Forest Service records, about 12,200 overnight paddle permits, with an average group size of four, were granted in the Ely area. Thus, if 49,000 overnight visitors to the backcountry represent 30% of all tourists, total Ely tourists would then number 163,000.
2These data are taken from the IWC's Visitors' Register. While neither a random sample nor representing all Ely tourists, it is a useful dataset to use. The distribution pattern closely resembles that of survey data and, with nearly 15,000 data points--far more than the survey--reveals much more comprehensive information--an important attribute for geographic data.
3This date marks the opening of the IWC as well as representing a convenient benchmark to identify Ely "regulars."
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