As tourist destinations around Wisconsin prepare for another summer, the seasonal flow of hospitality workers into the state is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels.
The labor outlook is a welcome development for business owners after two tough years for Wisconsin’s tourism and hospitality industry, which before the COVID-19 pandemic generated nearly $22 billion a year and supporting about 200,000 jobs.
Many of these jobs went unfilled in 2020 and 2021. The pandemic has driven demand for hospitality services like hotel rooms and indoor dining at the crater in 2020 as visitors and workers . sought to avoid exposure to the virus. In 2021, the arrival of vaccines guest an upsurge in tourists but widespread labor shortages meant that many resorts and other hospitality businesses could not hire enough workers to cope with the resumption of travel.
A year later, tourism propellants expect the balance between demand driven by vacationers and the supply of hospitality workers in Wisconsin to be much more stable.
“We are in a much better situation than since 2019,” said Tom Diehl, owner Tommy Bartlett Inc., with his wife Marguerite. The company operated the Tommy Bartlett water ski show in the Wisconsin Dells for 68 years before the pandemic bankrupt him. However, Diehl remains heavily involved in promoting the Dells as a tourist destination.
Diehl credited the upsurge in demand for visa which allow international students to spend summers working in the United States for better job prospects. Employers in several of Wisconsin’s top tourist destinations, including Dells and Door counties, have long depended on these international student workers traveling to the United States on short-term J-1 visas.
“In 2020, we had very, very few D-1s [workers] — they all canceled because of covid,” Diehl said.
Those international student workers contributed to a seasonal workforce in 2021 that made up about 75% of pre-pandemic employment in the Dells, Diehl said. the labor shortage meant that many resorts and restaurants could not operate at full capacity, even as the Dells saw record numbers of annual visitors.
“It put a lot of pressure on all the employees who were here,” Diehl said. “It was a great year, we just couldn’t deliver the total customer service that our region is known for.”
A month before the start of Memorial Day weekend, another summer tourist season, employers in Wisconsin Dells expect to fill their vacancies, Diehl said.
In effect, US State Department data show that interest in J-1 visas has skyrocketed in 2022, with the number of international students beginning the visa process to work in Wisconsin tourist destinations easily surpassing 2021 levels. By the end of March, more than 2 600 students had already started the visa process to work in the Dells in 2022, and more than 1,100 were already receiving visas.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm from the students and the community,” said Stacie Tollaksena regional director for intrax, which provides cultural and educational exchange opportunities for international students and sponsors many Wisconsin J-1 visa recipients. Tollaksen leads the Wisconsin Dells J-1 Consortium, a group that works closely with J-1 visa recipients in that region.
“We expect to have the same number of international students, if not more, than in 2019,” Tollaksen said. “There have been a lot of pent-up requests.”
Intrax recruits students from 20 countries, Tollaksen said. In 2022, a large number of J-1 recipients coming to Wisconsin via Intrax originate from a handful of countries: Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Romania and Thailand.
Diehl also noted an increase in the number of recipients of J-1 visas in the Dells region from Colombia and Turkey, while the war in Ukraine caused the number of Ukrainian recipients of J-1 visas to plummet.
“Normally we have a good turnout from the Ukrainians,” Diehl said. “But obviously with the war going on, they’re not coming.”