MADISON, Wisconsin — For the first time in four years, every county in Wisconsin reported an increase in visitor spending in 2014, the state's Department of Tourism announced Friday.
Travelers contributed $18.5 billion to Wisconsin's economy last year, up 5.5 percent from the year before, according to a state tourism report. Visitor growth topped 102 million in 2014, an increase of 7 million since 2010.
The state has increased its tourism marketing efforts in the last four years, Gov. Scott Walker said at a morning news conference at the Milwaukee County Zoo in Milwaukee, saying attractions like the zoo impact hundreds of thousands of "family-supporting careers" in the state.
Department of Tourism Secretary Stephanie Klett said tourism shouldn't be taken for granted. "It really is an economic powerhouse," Klett said. "It's about jobs, it's about families connecting, it's about adventure, it's about education."
Walker and Klett each got a kiss from one of the sea lions on Friday. "The people come here, but they come back here, more importantly, because of the fun," Walker said above the roaring of the sea lions.
The department cited improvements in the overall economy and moderating gas prices as reasons for the roughly 2 percent growth in both day and overnight visitor volumes. The report also said per-trip spending increased as personal income and consumer confidence strengthened in 2014.
Direct visitor spending on food, lodging, transportation, entertainment and other services accounted for $11.4 billion, up 5.3 percent from 2013, the report said. Lodging was the biggest money-maker in 2014, accounting for 26 percent of tourists' spending. Food and beverage came in second at 25.4 percent.
Jackson County, in west-central Wisconsin, saw the state's largest percentage increase in visitor spending at 11.8 percent. That number jumped from $32.2 million in 2013 to $36.1 million last year.
Chris Hardie, executive director of the Black River Falls Chamber of Commerce, attributed the increase to additional construction and industrial projects for nearby fracking sand mines and natural gas pipelines.
"That has certainly brought in a lot of people," Hardie said. A warmer and less rainy summer also meant more visitors came to hike, canoe and camp, he said.
Dane, Milwaukee, Sauk, Waukesha and Brown counties saw the highest direct visitor spending.
The hotel sector overall saw room demand increase 3.5 percent from 2013, pushing up average room rates by 3.7 percent. The report also said tourism supported about 187,650 Wisconsin jobs last year, or 7.9 percent of the state's employment. And the state and local tax revenue generated by visitors tallied $1.4 billion.
Most tourists in Wisconsin were from the U.S., according to the report, as only 5.7 percent of visitors came to Wisconsin from other countries.
The report also said a TV advertising campaign in March that featured Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan has been viewed online more than 526,000 times, a record for the department.
Associated Press writer Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee contributed to this report. Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bydanaferguson .