CHESTERTON — When Indiana Dunes Tourism Executive Director Lorelei Weimer compares the Indiana Dunes to the National Park Service’s most popular parks, the Dunes would rank seventh, she said.
Combining attendance figures for both Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park, there were 3.58 million visitors in 2017, she said, which puts it just below Yellowstone National Park’s 4.1 million visitors.
Weimer gave strong support at her State of Indiana Dunes Tourism presentation this week to U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky’s legislation that would rename Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as Indiana Dunes National Park.
“There are a few naysayers who believe we should not have this distinction of being named a national park by the National Park Service,” Weimer said. “My point is, not only do we deserve to be a national park, it should have happened years ago.”
“As you can see, we are playing with the big guns, and we should be there,” she said.
If the national park designation is approved, Indiana Dunes would be the 61st national park, she said Friday.
Indiana Dunes State Park counts attendance at its gate, and last year surpassed Brown County State Park as drawing the most visitors, at just under 1.5 million, according to the Department of Natural Resources website.
Weimer wants the Indiana Dunes to draw even more visitors.
She hopes to make some upgrades to the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center her agency jointly operates with the National Park Service at Ind. 49 and U.S. 20.
Neither agency has $1.6 million to spare, she said, but perhaps others would help raise money to add interactive exhibits that tell the story of each of Porter County’s communities, as well as other upgrades there.
The visitor center drew 108,767 visitors from all 50 states and 52 countries in 2017. There are so many international visitors that mini-guides to the county are available in 12 different languages, she said.
A new trail for Native American interpretation is being established at the visitor center with the assistance of the park service, Miami Indian tribe and the Pokagon band of the Potawatomie Indians, she said.
Weimer said the tourism is a big economic boost to Porter County, bringing 6 million visitors a year.
That produces an economic impact of $413.4 million in 2015 alone, an 80 percent increase from 2000, and generates 5,075 jobs.
Weimer’s Porter County agency partners with others to the east across northern Indiana for joint marketing.
She praised the state of Michigan’s Pure Michigan marketing campaign.
“There’s a reason Pure Michigan’s tourism industry is so successful,” she said. “The entire state has bought into an idea. They’re telling a single story, and that makes a difference to both residents and visitors alike.”
The state of Michigan, she said, spends $35 million a year on tourism efforts compared to Indiana’s $5 million, one of the lowest state tourism budgets in the nation.