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

David T. Schaller
Department of Geography
University of Minnesota

IWC Logo

Section 1: Introduction

For many years, the city of Ely, Minnesota, has served as a gateway for a growing nature-based tourism industry focused on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) wilderness and neighboring areas. These lakes and forests continue to be the primary basis for Ely's tourist economy, but the 1993 opening of the International Wolf Center (IWC) has given the city a prominent environmental education facility. Though, as an "ecocenter," the IWC's mission involves public education about wolf ecology, it also functions as a tourist attraction.

This study evaluates the IWC in this latter capacity; that is, what is its impact on Ely's tourism economy? Visitorship numbers alone are of limited use. The IWC draws almost 50,000 visitors annually--roughly 20% to 30% of all tourists to Ely. Many of these visitors, however, are attracted to Ely for other reasons--primarily to enjoy the area's natural attractions. Is an ecocenter like the IWC wholly dependent on this existing tourism activity, or can it function successfully as a tourist attraction in its own right? By examining these questions and their implications, this study seeks to illuminate the role of such an ecocenter in an area's tourism and economy. However, because there is little existing research on tourism activity in Ely, it is necessary to investigate tourism throughout the area in general. Consequently, this study examines visitorship to the IWC within the larger context of tourism visitation to Ely.

Section 2: Nature Tourism and the Ecocenter

Since 1950, tourism has rapidly grown as an economic activity, and it will soon be the world's largest industry. In recent years, increasing numbers of tourists have sought vacations in which they can explore and enjoy wilderness areas. Following in the wake of increasing public interest in the environment has been the growth of "ecocenters." Though similar in many ways to visitors' centers at national parks, ecocenters usually focus on a particular animal species for which the area is known. They typically are located in a rural town adjacent to a popular nature or wilderness reserve and may be considered important factors in the development of a tourism base for the economy. In addition to the IWC, examples of such ecocenters include the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin; the Sigurd Olson Institute's Loon Project in Ashland, Wisconsin; and the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center in Wyoming. In Minnesota, there are also proposals for a North American Bear Center and a White-tailed Deer Center. Little is known, however, about the role such ecocenters play in regional tourism. They are usually seen as secondary attractions which rely to a great extent upon the touristic appeal of the primary attraction, typically a nearby nature reserve. An ecocenter such as the International Wolf Center, then, may be classified as either (a) completely dependent on its proximity to the BWCA and environs, (b) enhanced by its proximity, or (c) incidental to it. The degree of this dependence also highlights the extent to which the ecocenter itself contributes to tourism visitation in the area, and thus its impact on the regional economy.

Section 3: Methodology

The results of this study are based on a stratified random sample of 862 tourists surveyed in the Ely area during five periods from May 1995 to February 1996. Of the total sample, 445 respondents were visitors to the International Wolf Center, and 417 were Ely tourists who were not visiting the Wolf Center on this vacation. Respondents completed a self-administered questionnaire about vacation motivation and behavior and socioeconomic characteristics. The response rate was 90%. Data from the survey was used to estimate the economic impact of the IWC. IMPLAN, the economic model used in this study, is an input-output model developed by the U.S. Forest Service and currently employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the University of Minnesota Extension Service, among others. IMPLAN estimates the ripple effects which follow an economic "shock" to the regional economy (in this case, St. Louis and Lake counties), such as have resulted from the opening of the IWC. Estimated economic impacts take three forms: direct effects (e.g., tourists stop for dinner at a downtown restaurant); indirect effects (the restaurant must buy more walleye from local fishermen); and induced effects (a waitress at the restaurant uses her tips to buy mukluks from a local shop). These impacts can be described in terms of economic output of a given business or industry, or in terms of new jobs (full-time or part-time) created. Like all models, IMPLAN simplifies the great complexity of the actual economy to make estimates about economic relationships and impacts. For example, IMPLAN uses a sectoral model of the economy which does not have a clear category for the IWC. The Wolf Center, then, was placed in a rather broad economic sector which includes museums and zoos as well as other non-profit organizations such as political associations. This sector's diverse nature makes it difficult to be certain how accurately its assumptions about regional sales and purchases reflect those of the IWC itself.

Section 4: Tourism to Ely, Minnesota

Summary: Tourists to Ely spend an average of $300 per party or $24 per person per day while in the destination area. This translates to total tourist expenditures somewhere between $18 and $27 million, and a rough economic impact of $40 to $60 million in the two-county area. The most common reasons for vacationing in Ely are fishing and canoeing, each cited by almost one-third of respondents. Fishermen and canoeists tend to travel longer distances to vacation in Ely compared to other tourists who come primarily to hike, camp, relax, visit with friends or relatives, or visit 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.1 Clearly, Ely is predominently 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. 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.

Figure 1.--Tourist Origins

Dot map of tourist origins

Source: International Wolf Center Visitor's Register 1995

The map indicates that high percentages of tourists come from urban areas, but 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). Cleary, 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. (Even in maps using five-digit ZIP code for area units, the entire Twin Cities metropolitan area is well represented.) 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.

Figure 2.--Tourist Origins: Midwest

Choropleth map of tourist origins

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

There are several notable socioeconomic differences among Ely tourists, primarily between canoeists and fishermen. Canoeists tend to have the highest levels of income and education; 42% have household incomes higher than $60,000 and 39% have some graduate work. Fishermen are similar in terms of income but not education, with 34% having household incomes above $60,000 but only 19% having graduate school experience. Taken as a whole, however, Ely tourists tend to have both higher incomes and higher levels of education compared to the Minnesota state population and to tourists throughout the state.

Section 5: Visitation to the International Wolf Center

Summary: Based on this study of the role of the IWC in tourism to the area, it appears that the Wolf Center relies to a large extent, but not entirely, on its proximity to the BWCA and nearby lakes and forests. While the IWC could not continue operating for long without business from Ely's existing base of tourists, it has carved itself a surprisingly large niche as a tourist attraction in its own right. About 24% of all IWC visitors report that the Wolf Center had a great influence on their decision to visit Ely. This corresponds to about 12,000 tourists who would not have visited Ely if not for the Wolf Center. While most of these visitors stay in the area only a day or two, they are likely to be new to the area and may decide to return on a future vacation. There appear to be few significant differences between tourists who visit the IWC and those who do not. Non-visitors are more likely to be canoeists and/or backcountry visitors, and to be vacationing in a larger group. Visitors have on average fewer children in their group. In most other respects, there were no important differences between the two groups. Attracting backcountry visitors to the IWC may continue to be a challenge, but tourists staying at resorts, campgrounds, and motels are all strong candidates for visiting.

Section 6: Impact of the International Wolf Center on Tourism and the Economy

Probably the most striking discovery from this study involves the magnitude of the International Wolf Center's appeal as a tourist attraction. Some 24% of visitors to the Wolf Center reported that the IWC had a great influence on their decision to vacation in Ely. This percentage of "IWC-influenced tourists" never dipped below 23% in the summer and rose to 30% in the spring and winter. These figures correspond to about 11,000 tourists which the IWC is largely responsible for bringing to the Ely area. 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.

Buttressing these results are responses ranking the top three activities which drew respondents to the Ely area. For all IWC visitors surveyed, the Wolf Center tied with canoeing for second place (after fishing), 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.

IWC-influenced tourists report different travel behavior than other tourists; they tend to travel shorter distances to visit Ely, spend fewer nights in Ely, and spend less money compared to the broad spectrum of Ely tourists. As a result, an IWC-influenced tourist has a smaller economic impact than does a typical Ely tourist. Nevertheless, the impact of these tourists is by no means inconsequential. First, these tourists are much less likely to be familiar with the Ely area. Whereas about half of all Ely tourists reported a previous visit to Ely since 1993, this was the case for only one-quarter of IWC-influenced tourists. These tourists, then, appear not to be regular Ely vacationers. Although they are usually in the area only for a day or two, it is possible that these tourists will remember Ely when planning a future vacation. By drawing this "new blood" to Ely, the IWC may well be enlarging the pool of future tourists.

Furthermore, these tourists do have a notable economic impact. With average group expenditures of $185, in 1995 they spent an estimated $655,000 in the Ely area. Another $70,000 was spent by the 20% of IWC visitors who extended their vacation, usually by only a few hours but in some cases overnight, in order to visit the Wolf Center. Total tourist expenditures which are directly attributable to the presence of the IWC in Ely amount to about $725,000. While this is only a small fraction of the estimated $24 million spent by all Ely tourists, the additional effects of these dollars as they ripple through the economy are sizeable. Additional tourist expenditures in restaurants, retail shops and lodging establishments have generated as many as 21 new jobs in the region, primarily in tourist-oriented businesses. Furthermore, the ripple effects of this increased tourism affect other sectors of the regional economy, creating as many as 16 more jobs. The increase in total industrial output in the region amounts to approximately $1.2 million, indicating a multiplier effect of 2.2 times the initial tourist expenditures.2

The IWC's economic impact is not limited to increased tourism expenditures, however. The Wolf Center itself plays a role in the regional economy by hiring employees, purchasing maintenance and heating supplies, and buying goods from local businesses for sale in the gift shop. Total economic impacts from the IWC's operations is about $1.5 million dollars (twice the IWC's operating budget), and (including jobs at the IWC itself) as many as 29 new jobs. All in all, about $3 million in annual economic activity and as many as 66 new jobs are associated with the International Wolf Center (Table 1). While most of the new economic activity is concentrated in tourism-related businesses, new jobs are also created in other sectors such as trade and services. All these figures, of course, are estimates, and their accuracy is limited by the assumptions of the IMPLAN model itself and those taken in this analysis.

Table 1.--Total Impacts of IWC in Regional Economy


Total Industrial Output ($000s)

Employee Compensation ($000s)

New Jobs





Tourism Services and Organizations*

$ 756.4

$ 197.2






Eating (Restaurants/Groceries













$ 6.4

$ 1.3






















*Includes backcountry guides, camps, and gear outfitters, as well as museums and zoos such as the IWC
**Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate


The International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, functions both as an environmental education facility and as a tourist attraction. Based on this study of the role of the IWC in tourism to the area, it appears that the Wolf Center relies to a large extent, but not entirely, on its proximity to the BWCA and nearby lakes and forests. While the IWC could not continue operating for long without business from Ely's existing base of tourists, it has carved itself a surprisingly large niche as a tourist attraction in its own right. About 24% of all IWC visitors report that the Wolf Center had a great influence on their decision to visit Ely. While most of these visitors stay in the area only a day or two, they are likely to be new to the area and may decide to return on a future vacation.

These visitors have also had a substantial economic impact in St. Louis and Lake counties. They, along with effects from the IWC's operations, can be linked to as much as $3 million in economic activity and to the creation of as many as 66 new jobs. The International Wolf Center is an appealing tourist destination which attracts both casual tourists and people who are willing to make the trip to Ely primarily to learn more about wolves. There is a strong existing base of tourists in Ely on which the IWC can draw for many years, though it should also make concerted efforts to become a regular stop for frequent Ely tourists. If it continues to serve as the primary attraction for a sizeable number of tourists, it will cement its role as a small but distinct contributor to the health of Ely's economy.

1 These 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.
2Tourist expenditures were reduced by $175,000 to account for spending at the IWC itself, either on admission or at the gift shop, since these expenditures are included later as part of the IWC's revenues.

This research was supported by the Center for Urban and Rural Affairs, University of Minnesota, and by the Carlson Tourism, Travel and Hospitality Endowed Chair--Tourism Center, University of Minnesota.

If you have any questions or comments about this site or the information you find here, contact the author.

up arrowto Ecotourism Research Home Page