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

David T. Schaller
Department of Geography
University of Minnesota

Section 5: Visitorship to the International Wolf Center

Although the International Wolf Center appears infrequently in the preceding analysis of tourist motivations and behavior, its role in Ely tourism should not be underestimated. According to the results of this study, a full third of all tourists to Ely visit the IWC. Furthermore, 40% of those surveyed who did not visit the IWC had visited it on a previous trip to Ely. (Forty percent of IWC visitors had also visited it on a previous trip to Ely.) Assuming these results accurately reflect the total tourist population, 65% of all Ely tourists in 1995 had toured the IWC at some point. Clearly, the IWC is a major tourist attraction in Ely. This section will examine IWC visitors in detail and compare tourists who visit the IWC to those who do not, to see whether there are any significant differences between the two groups.

Probably the most striking discovery from this study involves the magnitude of the IWC's appeal as a tourist attraction. Nearly one-fourth (24%) of visitors reported that the IWC had a great influence on their decision to vacation in Ely. Another 27% of respondents said the IWC had some influence on their choice of destination. Thus, about half (51%) of IWC visitors said that the presence of the IWC had played some role in their decision to vacation in Ely. The Wolf Center's strong showing here is buttressed by responses ranking the top three activities which drew IWC respondents to the Ely area. The Wolf Center tied with canoeing for second place, with 19% of respondents citing it as their main reason for visiting Ely. Another 14% listed it as the second most important reason for their visit to Ely, and 15% listed it third. The 24% of respondents who may be classified as "IWC-influenced" tourists will be examined in more depth in the last section of this paper. The remainder of this section will focus on differences between IWC visitors and tourists who did not visit the IWC.

Two-thirds of all IWC visitors had heard about the IWC before making plans to vacation in Ely; by far the most common way to have heard about it was from friends or relatives (35%), followed by a newspaper article (13%). In fact, neither the mass media (24%) nor tourist brochures (23%) were comparable to friends or relatives as the source of information about the IWC. Motivations for visiting the IWC were strongly related to the center's educational mission. The great majority of visitors (84%) said they had a special interest in wolves or in nature, and 53% said they had come to the IWC in order to learn something new. (Respondents were allowed to give two reasons for their visit.) Less than one-third (28%) described their visit to the IWC simply as a "good family outing." Interestingly, only 5% of respondents gave as a reason that they had needed to stop anyway at the BWCA ranger station (housed within the IWC) for information or backcountry permits. It very much appears, then, that the appeal of the IWC lies in its focus on wolves. Similar ecocenters focusing on animals with less of a popular mystique may have difficulty attracting similar numbers of visitors.

On the whole, IWC visitors were highly satisfied with their visit; over half (58%) said that the Wolf Center had met their expectations "very well," and only 13% gave it average or poor marks. This satisfaction carries over into their likelihood of visiting the IWC again. Over half (56%) said they would return to the IWC if vacationing in Ely again, and another 39% said they might. Only 5% said they would not. However, judging by responses to an open-ended question, some of this return business would depend on whether or not the IWC had new things to do and see. For at least 18% of these respondents, a return visit would hinge on new or expanded exhibits. On the other hand, existing programs at the IWC are not very well known. Only 33% of respondents, who were leaving the Wolf Center at the time they were questioned, knew that the IWC offered weekend programs and college courses. These programs, along with the daytime and evening activities currently offered, could be promoted in lieu of costly facility expansion.

Among respondents who did not visit the IWC, only 18% said that they had not heard of the Wolf Center prior to being surveyed. As noted above, 40% of non-visitors had previously visited the IWC. Of these respondents, 33% gave this earlier visit as the reason for not visiting it on this vacation, and almost 90% of them said they might return on a future trip to Ely. Among those who had never gone to the IWC, almost as many (87%) said they might visit it on a future vacation. Only 6% of all non-visitors said they were not especially interested in wolves and thus unlikely ever to visit the IWC. It appears, then, that there is very little resistance to the idea of visiting the IWC; what is lacking for most non-visitors is time and money. Over half (60%) of non-visitors gave "time constraints" as their reason for not visiting the IWC during their stay in Ely. Only 11% cited the admission cost. (Any analysis of this last result assumes that all non-visitors knew what admission to the IWC cost; it is possible that more respondents would have cited cost as a reason if they had more information about the matter.) Differences between IWC visitors and Ely tourists who have never visited the Wolf Center appear to be minimal across a range of behavioral and socioeconomic categories (Table 7).1 Significant differences appear only in one category--the number of adults in the party. It might seem logical that tourists with children are more likely to visit the IWC, but there were virtually no differences in this regard.

Table 7.--Differences in IWC Visitor and Non-Visitor Vacation Behavior2
Means and Significance Levels


1995/96 IWC Visitors (333)

Never Visited IWC (254)

Significant Difference?

Distance traveled to Ely



No (p=.55)

Number of nights in Ely



No (p=.06)

Dollars spent in Ely



No (p=.06)

Age of respondent



No (p=.45)

Number of adults in party



Yes (p=.05)

Number of children in party



No (p=.97)

These differences are not fully explained by a look at lodging choices (Figure 7). Non-visitors were more likely than visitors to favor the traditional lodging choices of lake resorts and, in particular, backcountry campsites. Many backcountry visitors probably prefer to spend as much of their vacation as possible in the BWCA, leaving little time for a stop at the IWC. The dramatic difference in this category suggests the difficulty in luring these tourists to the IWC. Resort guests, on the other hand, may be easier to attract. Many resort-based respondents remarked casually during the survey that they had thought about visiting the IWC but simply ran out of time. It may well be possible to increase visitation among this group, particularly by spreading the word about the IWC's day and evening programs.

In a similar vein, the most notable difference between visitors and non-visitors in terms of vacation activities was among canoeists (Figure 8). Among visitors, 24% of respondents were vacationing in Ely primarily to canoe, compared to 32% for non-visitors. The explanation again lies probably in canoeists' desire to maximize their time in the BWCA. For all other activities, however, differences between the two groups were small.

In other aspects as well, differences between visitors and non-visitors seem minimal. Non-visitors may have slightly higher levels of education, but these are not statistically significant (chi-square p of .78).3They probably stem from the tendency of canoeists and backcountry visitors to have graduate school experience (Figure 9). In general, IWC-visitors do not have disproportionately higher or lower levels of education than non-visitors.

Similarly, statistical testing indicates that there are no significant differences in income levels (chi-square p of .3, and of .53 for IWC visitors compared to all Ely tourists) (Figure 10).

In terms of almost all of the variables included in this study, the IWC is currently attracting a typical cross-section of Ely tourists. As noted in the previous chapter, Ely tourists do tend to have higher levels of education and income than do either tourists state-wide or the general state population. Within this population of Ely tourists, however, there is no evidence to indicate that the Wolf Center is of interest only to certain kinds of tourists, nor that it has already thoroughly tapped its potential market. The challenge now is to reach the remaining 44% of Ely tourists who have never been to the Wolf Center. More importantly, perhaps, for its long-term success, the IWC must offer sufficient new or changing attractions to draw repeat visitors.

1For this table and those that follow, only those non-visitors are included who had never been to the IWC. The aim of this analysis is to identify differences between visitors and non-visitors in order to identify any behavioral or socioeconomic differences among them. Including tourists who visited the IWC in a previous year would weaken any conclusions, since it was mere chance that this study occurred in 1995 rather than 1994 or 1993. For similar reasons, only those IWC visitors are included who were not in Ely primarily on account of the Wolf Center, since the two groups report significantly different vacation behavior. Removing these respondents from the data will help clarify possible differences within the largest pool of potential visitors--those tourists who are already vacationing in Ely.
2Significance based on t-test of difference of means, with a significance level of .05. Distant outliers were removed prior to testing.
3Since chi-square is meant to test the independence of a sample from the greater population, a second test was done comparing IWC visitors (sample) to Ely tourists as a whole (population); the p in this case was virtually the same--.77.)
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