Rough sailing for state's boating industry
Written by Booth Newspapers   
Monday, 02 July 2007 05:35

The undertow of Michigan's lagging economy and high gasoline prices are tugging at the state's boating industry.  Boat sales and registrations in Michigan are down over the last couple of years, and boating experts say that's largely due to the state's economic woes. Boating is a luxury when money gets tight.

"Sales of boats are sporadic and challenged because we're a discretionary expenditure," said Van Snider, president of the Michigan Boat Industries Association (MBIA), which represents the state's boat dealers and marinas. "I'd like to believe everybody should have a boat, but you have to take care of all your necessities before you can have extra money to use in some discretionary way."

Michigan's boat registrations are down to 961,650 this year, after peaking in 2001 at 976,307. Those registrations don't include the millions of smaller craft -- kayaks, canoes and rowboats -- that don't have to be registered. Michigan ranks third nationally in boat registrations, behind Florida and California.

Snider says the MBIA doesn't track boat sales and marina occupancies, but he said it is clear from anecdotal evidence that it's rough sailing for Michigan's boating industry. Sales are down an estimated 10 percent to 25 percent this year over last, he says, and some of the state's marinas are seeing empty slips.

"A number of years ago we were in the 94 percent to 95 percent occupancy range (for marinas)," said Snider. "Some marina operators are saying that today it's more in the 65 percent to 70 percent range."

Boaters abound in every Michigan county, but state watercraft registrations show that Oakland County, with 94,488 registrations, is home port to the largest number of boaters. Next is Wayne (74,522), Macomb (55,901), Kent (51,887) and Genesee (35,730).

Michigan isn't the only state with a stalled boating industry, though. Nationally, new boat sales were down 6 percent in 2006, and experts estimate they'll be down by as much as 10 percent in 2007. Sales of jet skis, canoes and kayaks are up, however.

Boating officials in part blame sinking power boat sales on the deflating real estate market.

"We Americans are not great at saving, so most of our savings is in our homes," said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which represents boat builders. "When our home prices decline, we feel less wealthy and less willing to part with our discretionary dollars. It isn't helped by the rise in interest rates, which makes it harder to buy a boat."

Nationally, there are nearly 18 million boats in use, which includes power boats, sailboats and smaller watercraft, according to the manufacturers group. There were nearly 13 million boat registrations in 2006, and about 73 million people went boating last year. An estimated $39.5 billion was spent on boat sales and services nationwide.

Some boaters are weathering the economic storm by keeping their vessels in storage, while others are leaving their boats docked at the marina instead of touring the lakes. Others are trimming their cruising time, taking shorter hops instead of long-distance excursions.

"Boating is a lifestyle," said Scott Croft, spokesman for BoatUS, a national association that represents boat owners. "For a lot of people, a boat equates to a weekend cabin or cottage. It's more than just an activity like going to a hockey game. People will go to their boat, and they may keep it in the slip for the weekend. Or they may take shorter trips instead of cruising for days on end."

The Recreational Marine Research Center at Michigan State University estimates that about $992 million is generated each year through recreational boating in Michigan. That money, spent on everything from food to equipment to boats, translates into big bucks for the state's tourism industry.

"The Great Lakes and Michigan's 11,000 inland lakes really define who we are and what Michigan is all about," said Kirsten Borgstrom, a spokeswoman for Travel Michigan, the state's tourism agency. "We have a lot of great places where you can go boating, and it's an important part of our travel industry no matter what the economy is like."
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