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Do Wind Turbines Turn Off Tourists?

Once-wary vacation spots find scant harm, some gain

July 7, 2011 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Northeast Wind
  Tours of wind farms are proving to be popular, especially among younger people.

When Duke Energy proposed erecting 112 wind turbines among the rolling hills, farmland, and orchards of northwest Lower Michigan’s scenic Benzie and Manistee Counties, some local opponents of the project warned that the very sight of the massive machines would turn off visitors to the region.

Placing the 500-ft.-tall machines along ridges a few miles inland from the Lake Michigan shoreline, they said, with some in sight of several prized views, would harm local tourism, which depends heavily on the area’s spectacular beaches and rural scenery.

If true, that would seriously harm the counties’ economy. Tourism is crucial to northern Michigan’s economy; along with agriculture, it’s the region’s top industry.

Some of Duke’s opponents are so concerned about utility-scale turbines’ effect on local tourist-based businesses—from boutique hotels, coffee shops, and upscale restaurants to bike, kayak, and jet-ski rentals—that they’ve placed garish-yellow ads on large billboards along the area’s two main highways. The ads urge residents and tourists to enjoy the scenic views this summer “because it may be our last chance.”

Reporting by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, however, indicates that large-scale wind turbines are unlikely to significantly harm tourism in northern Michigan. Tourist and business officials in communities that already have large-scale windpower development told the news service that they could not report significant, measurable negative effects on tourism.

Several indicated that, if anything, the turbines actually boosted local tourism, and their communities moved to take advantage of the phenomenon.

Academic research seems to support that assertion—at least for offshore wind development.

‘We Value Clean Energy’
Pennsylvania’s Somerset County offers an apt analogue to Benzie and Manistee, at least in terms of what they look like. Largely rural Somerset boasts the state’s highest mountain, along with gently rolling hills, three state parks, three commercial campgrounds, numerous summer festivals, and winter sports, especially skiing.

That is why, when a power company proposed building 100 utility-scale turbines in the county, it quickly raised concerns about harming tourism. Today, however, the turbines stand tall on the county’s hills, including in areas reclaimed from strip mining and atop ridges along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Yet, according to Ron Aldom, an executive at the Somerset County Regional Chamber of Commerce, the county has not seen a decline in local tourism numbers; in fact, the opposite may be occurring.

“People do come here for other reasons, but some people do want to go see the wind farms,” he said. “We have some people who get off at (our) exit and ask, ‘How can I go see these?’

“So there has been a slight increase. It’s not a big deal. We’ve never had anyone come in and say ‘We are not coming back to your county because you’ve got windmills.’”

Today, the county promotes its windpower development.

“The turbines now appear in a lot of our tourism ads,” Mr. Aldom said. “They’ve blended in. I’m not advocating for one of them on every mountaintop, but if you can find a balance it is a nice thing, and there is that value of portraying your area as interested in clean energy.”

Other American communities now see wind power as a tourism attraction, too. They include:


  • Atlantic City, N.J., where the Jersey-Atlantic Wind Farm, now complete, has become a mini-tourist attraction. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports tourists can get up close to turbines, each of which “saves 24,000 barrels of crude oil a year.” Philly.com reports that the 35-story-tall machines attract about 15,000 visitors a year.
  • Searsburg, Vt., where a local business now offers periodic tours of the Searsburg Wind Power Facility, taking care to limit access in order to protect wildlife habitat, particularly for bears.
  • Cape Cod, Mass., where HyLine Cruises is already planning to offer tours of the huge, recently approved offshore wind farm site there once construction begins, next year—recalling similar boat tours tourists took during construction of the Mackinac Bridge. HyLine reportedly opposed the farm when it was announced, but now predicts its turbine tours and a windpower visitor center will be more popular than the whale tours the company offers there.
  • North Palm Springs, Calif., where a company charges $30 a customer for a 90-minute bus tour of a 30-year-old wind farm. The company describes the tour as “a short course in ecology awareness and environmentally friendly power” that demonstrates turbine tech evolution.

The Turbines of Madison County
New York’s Madison County, like Somerset, is rural. One Web site calls it “a gem in the heart of New York State,” with 15 lakes and lots of publicly owned land.

Like Somerset, Madison endured the controversy surrounding wind power development; now it has 54 turbines.

Jim Walter, executive director of the non-profit Madison County Tourism Inc., has not seen a drop in tourism numbers in the wake of wind development. He believes the turbines have a positive impact—although they also generate a minor concern.

“One of the problems we’ve faced is tourists walking across farmers’ fields to get up close and look at them,” Mr. Walter said. “So, what we’ve done is put kiosks up about wind energy...(and other forms of clean energy.) General Electric donated a blade; it sits on the ground so people can get up close to them and see how big these blades are.”

Mr. Walter said that, after wind farm development started, in 2000, tourism spending actually increased.

“In 2000, we had $40 million in visitor spending,” he said. “In 2009, we had $73 million.”

Mr. Walter said he could not attribute that spending growth in tourism dollars specifically to the turbines. However, he did say it was clear that they did not harm the county’s tourism.

“From what I’ve seen, tourism-wise, the impact has been a positive one,” he said. “We see a lot of tours to visit our wind farms. They range from school groups learning about it to town planning commissions who want to learn about it.”

Island Breeze
Like Benzie and Manistee, other tourist-friendly communities are struggling with windpower, looking for ways to assure that, if it comes, it helps rather than harms the community.

One example is Block Island, R.I., where a company proposes placing offshore wind turbines within the view of the tourism-dependant island.

“It’s very much a hot-button topic,” Block Island tourism director Jessica Willi said. “Everyone here is all for clean energy, but the turbines would literally be in the most scenic part of the island. Our bluff views would have turbines in them.”

Ms. Willi said she suspects that if the turbines are erected, they will likely “be a wash” as far as visitors are concerned, though.

“As a tourism professional, I think the same number of people will come to see them as those who won’t come,” said Ms. Willi. “I expect a small number of people to actually change their travel habits.”

Ms. Willi believes that local support for island wind power ultimately depends on whether the project helps subsidize the island’s electric rates. That scenario is not possible in Benzie and Manistee, due to state regulations making sale of local turbine power to local residents illegal—and the fact that electric rates there are low.

Ms. Willi is unclear about whether or not the proposed turbines could sell power to her community. 

“Right now there is no guarantee that those turbines will connect to the island or that we will get power from them,” she said. “We have the second-highest electric rates in the country. If we get the turbines connected and prices come down for our electricity, the prices for goods and services go down, and it will be great for tourism. It would be really good for our business community.”

In Manistee and Benzie, financial benefits of Duke’s proposal would be unrelated to tourism: $14,000 annual payments to landowners leasing their property for the wind farm would add about $1.6 million to the local economy. According to the company, it would also pay about $1.3 million annually in local property taxes.

Beach Bummer?
The benefits tourist officials see from windpower appear to be confirmed by two recent academically based surveys, at least for offshore wind development.

A recent University of Delaware study, funded by U of D and the federal government, looked at the possible effect of offshore wind turbines on beach tourism. The weighted,random survey of 1,076 beachgoers asked how likely it would be for them to return to a beach if turbines were placed one mile, six miles, or 13 miles from shore. Respondents viewed visual simulations of the different scenarios.

The survey found some tourists would not return to a beach if turbines were visible—particularly if sited a mile from shore. But the “avoidance effect” quickly diminished at greater distances. And a large percentage of respondents said they were more likely to avoid a beach because of nearby fossil-fueled power plants than nearby turbines.

The report found 65.8 percent of surveyed out-of-state beachgoers said they were likely to visit a new beach to see a wind farm six miles offshore, while 44.5 percent said they were likely to pay to take a boat tour of an offshore wind facility. The survey confirmed that people under 30 were more attracted to turbines than older respondents.

A more recent study—a draft review by the University of Rhode Island regarding offshore turbines—found that large wind turbines can have a slightly negative impact on tourism, but that the impact is usually temporary.

“The report … says the negative impacts would likely be minimal or temporary in most cases and also cites evidence wind farms can have the opposite effect, boosting tourism,” according to the Providence Business News.

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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