Area offers what byway travelers seek

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Byways are the second highest interest of people traveling in Iowa, only behind food. Two byways pass through Marquette and McGregor, including the River Bluffs Scenic Byway and Great River Road.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Byways are popular among travelers, with over half looking to sightsee and explore unique restaurants and cultural and recreational sites along the country’s less-traveled “side roads.” Two—the River Bluffs Scenic Byway and Great River Road—pass through Marquette and McGregor.

The Great River Road is a national scenic byway, stretching 3,000 miles from Minnesota’s Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. Iowa’s stretch encompasses 328 miles, north to south, featuring panoramic views, historic sites and dozens of charming river towns.

The 109-mile River Bluffs Scenic Byway begins at the Allamakee/Clayton County border, north of Marquette, and travels south, toward St. Olaf and Elkader, before heading west, into Fayette County. The byway then makes its way through West Union and Fayette before going east, back into Clayton County, where it ends in Guttenberg.

“Byways are the second highest interest of Iowa travelers, only behind food,” said Lora Friest, executive director of the Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D), which oversees four byways in northeast Iowa. That includes River Bluffs as well as the Driftless Area, Delaware Crossing and Grant Wood Scenic Byways. 

Friest spoke at a meeting of the River Bluffs Scenic Byway Aug. 19, at Eagles Landing Winery in Marquette.

“Travelers are looking for us, and we have what they want,” she said. “There are a lot of ways to capitalize on that.”

One thing to capitalize on, said Friest, is travelers’ lengths of stay, as around 59 percent are interested in a leisurely trip.

“Someone who travels on a byway is one-third more likely to extend their stay at least one day,” she said, noting that the byways term is intriguing for travelers. 

That means visitors spend more time staying at lodging, visiting restaurants and buying gas, she said.

Of those who travel Iowa’s scenic byways, Friest said the largest percentage are culinary tourists, seeking locally-produced food and drinks. 

One popular aspect is the Friday night fish fry.

“It’s a very localized thing that only happens in [the upper Midwest],” Friest said. “We sometimes take that for granted.”

Friest said culinary tourists often spend double the amount of generic tourists and love to frequent farmers markets and the businesses adjacent to markets. They are also quite social and enjoy taking food, drinks (wine and beer) and recipes home with them. When visiting eating or drinking establishments, Friest said they like specific information.

“Pictures of food motivate them,” she stated. “They want to know where the restaurant is, what food is there and what is good.”

Following culinary tourists are those interested in cultural and historic sites. These tourists more frequently take long weekends, Friest said. They like educational opportunities and seek authentic destinations with character.

“They’re more likely to stay somewhere historic,” she mentioned. “They like destinations that have retained their character.”

Many byway travelers also partake in adventure tourism, looking for physical activity and interaction with nature.

Friest said adventure tourists are younger, with the average age 35. Three-fourths have a post-secondary education and three-fourths also have a passport.

“They’re experienced travelers, so we have to compete for them,” Friest said. “They like to try different things and place a high importance on exploring new places.”

Another type of tourist the byways attract are recreational motorcyclists, Friest said. Iowa boasts 11 million motorcycles; it’s an $85 billion market in the U.S.

“They want scenic views, curvy roads and to get away from traffic,” she explained. “They enjoy sightseeing, shopping and going to parks.”

While each group of travelers is unique, Friest noted they also have many similarities.

“Although they have different priorities, they all like the same types of things once they reach their destination,” she said. “They come for a specific activity, but only spend 10 to 15 percent of their time doing that. The rest of the time, they do other things.”

Friest said the Northeast Iowa RC&D has several outreach efforts to bring people to the River Bluffs Scenic Byway. One of those is developing infrastructure, including Marquette’s overlook and boardwalk project, which received over $300,000 in funding from the Scenic Byways program of the Mississippi Parkway Commission.

Other outreach efforts include interpretive kiosks along the byways, social media posting and publications.

Among the publications are newsletters, window clings that are put on business doors, tear sheet maps that highlight byway routes, the “Eat Your Way Along the Byway” culinary passport and historic walking tour booklets. Two byway communities currently have walking tour booklets, one of which is McGregor.

In order to stimulate more byway interest, Friest said businesses have to get involved.

“We want businesses to be more connected to the Byways program so it can help them,” Friest explained. “When people ask, businesses should be able to say what the byway is and what there is to do on it because travelers are looking for those things we have.”

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