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Illinois reports record tourism numbers, with nearly 114 million visitors from near and far

Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, May 16, 2018  |  Article  |  Lori Rackl

Tourism (90)

Whether they came for a Route 66 road trip, a total solar eclipse downstate or a music festival in Chicago, nearly 114 million visitors traveled to Illinois last year -- 1.6 million more than in 2016, according to new state tourism figures released Tuesday.


As usual, international travelers made up a small fraction of that record-high total. An estimated 2.36 million visited from other countries, primarily Canada, China, the U.K., Mexico, Japan and Germany.


The remaining 111.5 million U.S. visitors were overwhelmingly here for vacation, as opposed to work. Some 83 percent were leisure travelers, the category that saw the most

growth. The other 17 percent were here on business. The Illinois Office of Tourism gets its domestic visitor numbers from the travel research firm DK Shifflet and international visitor numbers from Tourism Economics.


"It was the domestic leisure market that drove our numbers; that's what we focus on," said state tourism director Cory Jobe, who credited several marketing initiatives with better selling Illinois as a destination not just for out-of-staters but residents alike.


"We're encouraging more and more Chicagoans, instead of traveling out of state to Michigan and Wisconsin, we're giving them new ways to travel in state -- a lot of weekend getaways, road trip ideas, outdoor adventures," Jobe said, noting the recent rollout of a new Frank Lloyd Wright trail in Illinois.


"You can experience several different unique products within a 70-minute to three-hour drive from Chicago," he added. "We have a great message that's resonating well with the consumer."


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The state spent several million dollars last year pushing its "Up for Amazing" campaign with lively commercials, a revamped EnjoyIllinois.com website and other advertising that played up the thrill of exploration and discovery more so than the classic tourism approaches touting relaxation and family fun.


Last year's spring/summer campaign was targeted at 14 domestic and five international markets. Every dollar invested returned $9 in economic impact for the state, Jobe said.


Domestic and international travelers spent $39.5 billion in Illinois during 2017, an uptick of 3 percent from 2016, according to data from the U.S. Travel Association. Last year, Illinois visitors generated $2.95 billion in state and local tax revenue -- a jump of $75 million from 2016.


In 2017, the state's tourism industry supported 335,500 jobs, which is 18,600 more than in 2015.


"From visitor volume to taxes generated to job creation, our industry is very important to the state," Jobe said.


His sector, however, isn't immune from the state's financial woes. This spring and summer, budget constraints have led the tourism office to scale back its ad campaigns from 14 domestic markets to nine.


"I still feel we will be very competitive," Jobe said.


Under Jobe, the state has made a concerted effort to reach out to LGBTQ travelers with ads aimed directly at that lucrative market. The tourism office also has had success with its Illinois Made program, which showcases an ever-expanding network of local artisans and small-business owners across the state -- something that appeals to travelers looking for authentic, unique experiences.


Attracting international visitors remains a challenge. Jobe dismissed the notion of a so-called Trump slump, which some experts have pointed to as the reason international arrivals to the U.S. don't appear to be keeping pace with the boom in global tourism.


"It's the exchange rate, plain and simple," Jobe said about the strength of the U.S. dollar in recent years, making it costly for foreigners to travel here. "And Illinois and Chicago don't have the marketing dollars that some of the other major (U.S.) destinations do."


The state late last year opened offices in China and Mexico to attract foreign visitors. That, combined with a weakening dollar, has Jobe optimistic that Illinois will see more international travelers in the near future.


Illinois will have to wait until 2024 for the next total solar eclipse to grace the Land of Lincoln. That highly publicized event in August drew an estimated 50,000 visitors to Carbondale and many more to the surrounding areas that fell in the path of totality. But Jobe said he expects to get some bounce from this year's bicentennial. The 200th anniversary of statehood is Dec. 3.


"It's another one of those once-in-a-lifetime events," Jobe said. "There's some great new exhibits at the Peoria Riverfront Museum and here in Springfield at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum celebrating our state's bicentennial. We announced the Frank Lloyd Wright trail last week. The new governor's mansion is reopening to the public in July with a new visitor experience, open seven days a week with docents. All of that will help."


1. Elsah

Elsah, the tiny town that hardly seems to have changed in the past 150 years, was named the state's top scenic spot by voters in the Illinois Top 200 project. It was followed by the

Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi River from Galena to Cairo, and a remarkable statue of Black Hawk in northern Illinois.



2. Great River Road

The route along the Mississippi from Galena to Cairo takes drivers through old river towns, towering bluffs, fertile fields and unique historic sites.



3. Black Hawk Statue

Formally named "The Eternal Indian," this statue by Lorado Taft is an impressive sight all by itself. Put it on a bluff above the Rock River and you have one of the most beautiful spots in the state.


Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune

4. Garden of the Gods

Hills, forests and sandstone formations in the Shawnee National Forest combine to create one of the most dramatic landscapes in Illinois.


Phil Marty, Chicago Tribune

5. Starved Rock

A 2,600-acre park in La Salle County filled with waterfalls, steep canyons, hiking trails and lush foliage, plus important archaeological sites.



6. Galena

This river town in the state's northwest corner has a downtown of beautiful old buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The surrounding bluffs and hills provide gorgeous views.


Alan Solomon, Chicago Tribun

7. Chicago lakefront

This 30-mile stretch of beaches, parks, museums and skyscrapers has been called Chicago's "undisputed crown jewel."


Kiichiro Sato, Associated Press

8. Giant City State

A haven for nature lovers, this park near Carbondale features huge sandstone bluffs, extensive trails and the remains of a stone fort built by Native Americans more than 1,000 years ago.



9. Allerton Park

Designated a "national natural landmark," this park near Monticello is filled with carefully maintained gardens and beautiful sculptures.



10. Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site

The fort that once protected the village of Kaskaskia is long gone. What remains is a stunning view from the bluffs above the Mississippi River.