Sustainable Tourism: Lessons from America's 'Snow Capital'

  Photo credit: Fans and race officials look on as participants in the annual I-500 snowmobile competition vie for the finish line. [Image courtesy of Great Getaways] 

Photo credit: Fans and race officials look on as participants in the annual I-500 snowmobile competition vie for the finish line. [Image courtesy of Great Getaways] 

Dubbed America’s snow capital, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan gets more than 13 feet of the white stuff each year. That’s more than four meters -- making winter in this town of some 14,000 people seem like a tough sell for all but its rugged residents.

You wouldn’t know it from the more than ten thousand people set to converge here in the next two weeks, though. Like they have every winter for the past half-century, these die-hard visitors will be coming from around the world for the annual I-500 Snowmobile Race.

It’s the largest such gathering on the planet. But beyond the fun and fanfare, the I-500 story is one of citizen stewardship and government support -- the twin pillars of a local tourism strategy that, even in the off-season, can attract visitors and much-needed revenue to small- and mid-size towns, including those off the beaten path.

World-Class Attractions

“The Soo,” as this Upper Peninsula town is known, is a twin city with its counterpart across the St. Mary’s River in Ontario, Canada. One of its main attractions is the Soo Locks, where locals and tourists can watch ships making their way between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. It’s a stunning sight, in part because the massive ships look even bigger in the narrow waterway.

Yet the Soo Locks are much more than a photo opportunity. By some accounts, the sheer weight of goods passing through them each day makes this engineering marvel the busiest canal on earth. That it leads into Lake Superior, a freshwater lake with the planet’s largest surface area, means that, along with the largest snowmobile competition in the world, this unassuming town is home to at least two world-class attractions.

This year, it wants to add another: the longest-ever snowmobile parade. As more than 1,000 riders prepare to vie for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, the main event drawing them to Sault Ste. Marie -- the I-500 Snowmobile Race -- will be marking its 50th year.

Its staying power alone should be cause for celebration. After all, an idea that started with a question -- “Could a snowmobile run 500 miles?” -- is now an international phenomenon only a year younger than the Super Bowl, that American blockbuster with more than a billion viewers worldwide. The I-500 has persisted through ten presidencies, the energy crisis, the Great Recession, and the age of instant, handheld gaming.

Economic Impact

Yet of all its distinctions, perhaps none means more to the people of the Soo than the race’s economic impact. As Linda Hoath, Executive Director of the Sault Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, told us ahead of last year’s race: “the economic impact for local businesses cannot be overstated.”

Hoath estimates that the race generates about $5 million in revenue for local businesses each year -- or about $350 per resident. That stands to reason, of course: smart development, like that spearheaded by city officials in the Soo, can turn innovative ideas into budget windfalls.

In the case of Sault Ste. Marie, one of the coldest cities in America, it was snowfall that prompted the idea behind the I-500. But in the race’s half century track record is a lesson for any city its size: with a bit of creativity, even an “off season” can be a successful one.

KANAVA’s own Susan Puska was born and raised in the Soo. For a full bio of our founder and CEO, please click here.