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Welcome Visitors: Illinois' Tourism Industry Means Big Business

Navy Pier
WUIS/Illinois Issues

On any given summer day, 46,000 people fan out over Navy Pier in Chicago to ride the 150-foot Ferris wheel, feel the wind rush off a 45-mph speedboat, play 18 holes of mini-golf, see a Shakespeare play, savor a sugary bag of cinnamon almonds and maybe even end the day with a fireworks show.

It’s all big fun for tourists at Illinois’ No. 1 attraction and at hundreds of attractions across the state.

But for the state of Illinois, it’s big business — $27 billion worth of business every year spent when someone visits an attraction, buys souvenirs or spends money on gas, hotel or food. The industry also supports about 300,000 jobs in the state — or one of every 10 — and contributes 13 percent of the state’s total sales tax, according to the Illinois Office of Tourism. 

Midwest travelers are the biggest contributors to Illinois tourism, especially as family budgets tighten and travelers look for vacation destinations that don’t require buying plane tickets, measuring baggage and standing sock-footed in long security lines. 

About 85 percent of tourist traffic in the state comes from people driving, says Jan Kostner, deputy director of the Illinois tourism office. With that in mind, the bureau heavily promotes get-away weekends to destinations such as Galena or Starved Rock State Park, Springfield or Shawnee National Forest. 

“We’re not a two-week vacation state, we are a three- or four-day, long-weekend state,” Kostner says. 

Enticing international travelers, who stay longer and spend more while they are here, is another focus. The state is beefing up efforts in the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and China to get tourists to put Illinois at the top of their travel lists as an alternative to New York, California and Florida. In 2009, the latest year for which tourism numbers are available, Illinois had 1.7 million international visitors.

Marketing efforts and news events have helped raise Illinois’ profile overseas. The state got international exposure, for instance, in January, when China’s president, Hu Jintao, made his first visit to Chicago, the only city outside Washington, D.C., on his U.S. itinerary.

Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid also got international travelers thinking about what the city and state had to offer.

“They know about us through business, with the University of Chicago, etc., but what they don’t know about is the tourism side,” says Kostner. The tourism bureau is investing in marketing campaigns and partnerships with tourism operators and airlines to boost the state’s profile.

“We want them to know that you don’t have to go anywhere else,” Kostner says. “You’ll get the big bustling experience of Chicago and also the charm of Route 66, which is still huge internationally.”

China, in particular, has been an important partner for Chicago. The city participated in the Shanghai World Expo last year as part of the USA Pavilion, which gave the city prime exposure. 

Evidence of the popularity of Chicago for Chinese tourists shows up on signs, brochures and guides offered in Mandarin, the primary Chinese dialect, at major attractions. Wendella boat cruises’ website has a Mandarin section; the Field Museum offers a map in Mandarin. 

The Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture has three downloadable MP3 tours — Chicago Blues, Millennium Park and Kids Chicago — and Mandarin is one of the five languages offered. 

“For the blues tour, Mandarin is the most downloaded version by far after English,” says Dorothy Coyle, executive director of the Chicago tourism office.

Chicago attracts more than 40 million visitors annually, Coyle says, and the economic impact of tourism in the city is $10.2 billion. 

Between 2003 and 2008, Chicago saw a 47 percent increase in leisure travel when the national average was 6 percent, Coyle says, attributing that largely to the opening of Millennium Park in 2004, along with a boost in marketing and the restaurant scene in Chicago receiving increasing global acclaim.

Now, as the state pulls out of recession, Coyle says she expects people who have put off traveling to start making plans. “We’re in a recovery period,” she says.

With the price of gas escalating, Chicago offers a host of low-cost transportation options once visitors arrive. She pointed out that Chicago is on the Megabus route, which offers fares as low as $1 from several major cities.

With its mass transit options and free or low-cost festivals, the area is in a good position to attract people who are ready to travel but looking for bargains once they get to the city, Coyle says.

Historic sites also offer lower-cost vacation options and Illinois’ well-known presidential ties — to Lincoln, Grant, Reagan and Obama — are making these sites destinations as well as side trips.

“Tourism is arguably the second-largest industry in Illinois — second only to agriculture — and heritage tourism is a big part of the tourism industry,” says Dave Blanchette, communications manager for the Illinois Historic Preservation Society.

He says Illinois’ historic sites — not including the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum — get between 2 million and 3 million visits a year, and the Lincoln museum averages 400,000 per year. 

Historic sites can have a tremendous impact on an area’s economy. Take the Lincoln museum’s impact on Springfield: “You look at downtown development since 2005 when the museum opened. A lot more businesses have opened, and they are the type that cater to tourists — restaurants and shops. Hotels and motels have seen increased business. 

“Springfield always was a tourism destination — people came here because we have more Lincoln sites than anyone else in the country,” Blanchette says. “What the library did was give people one more reason to visit. The museum attracts 400,000 additional people per year, on average, who probably wouldn’t have come to Springfield otherwise. You’ve got that many more people spending time and money here and possibly staying a day longer.”

Mary Prisco of Piedmont, Calif., was one of the people who has rediscovered Springfield. She and her family had intended to join her parents from Sugar Grove, Ill., over Thanksgiving last year to soak up some history at the first place she thought of for a historic vacation — Williamsburg, Va. Her parents suggested they try the Lincoln museum instead, and a visit there changed her mind about Illinois’ historical offerings. Now she thinks of central Illinois as not just the home of her alma mater, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, but as a tourist destination.

“It never occurred to me there would be such an amazing museum in the middle of Illinois,” she says.

State parks and natural areas also help bring people to the state, but not always for the reasons you might think.

In southern Illinois, a vacation in a natural area doesn’t always mean camping, hiking, birdwatching and canteens.

Sometimes, a nature lover just wants a good glass of wine.

In the middle of the Shawnee National Forest, the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail lets tourists explore 12 wineries in the state’s first region to be acknowledged for its wine-making qualities. The Shawnee trail and smaller wine trails have become the main attraction in the area.

“The wineries do very well here because of the hilly terrain — what you might not expect to see in Illinois,” says Cindy Benefield-Cain, executive director of the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau. 

Elsewhere, throughout the state, 45 million people visit 324 state parks, fish and wildlife areas, forests, trails and recreational sites, bringing in nearly $1 billion in revenue. The state parks support close to 8,500 jobs.

At Illinois’ most popular state park, Starved Rock, marketing director Kathy Casstevens says the uncertain economy has meant that more people are seeking out lower-cost options and are staying closer to home.

More than 2 million people visited the park in 2010, and Casstevens is expecting a boost in attendance this year as the park celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Anniversaries give tourists an added reason for a visit and some urgency in trying an area of the state they might have otherwise bypassed.

This year, Illinois will trumpet its Civil War connections as the U.S. marks 150 years since the beginning of the war and Lincoln’s inauguration. Though there were no Civil War battles in the state, attractions such as Ulysses S. Grant’s home in Galena, the Lincoln museum and the Lincoln home in?Springfield are expected to be especially popular this year.

Getting the word out about all of these offerings is crucial to Illinois’ tourism bureaus. And just like every other department in a state facing a budget deficit of up to $15 billion, the bureaus are finding ways to stretch resources. 

To that end, the free-advertising benefits of social media —Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. — ­are playing an ever-more-important role, Kostner says.

Chicago is finding success in a scavenger hunt-like game that is bringing in tech-savvy travelers.

“We were the first destination to utilize Foursquare, which is a downloadable game people can play on their smartphones,” Coyle says.

It gives people an engaging guide for visiting the city. Players earn one of three badges — “blues,” “celery salt” and “on-location” — for checking in at Chicago restaurants, locations and attractions. Visiting five hot dog locations gets you the celery salt badge. Visiting five film locations and five blues clubs wins you the other two.

The game is building buzz in its first year and now has about 30,000 followers, Coyle says. “It’s a very effective way to reach a different kind of audience that is very savvy with technology. … It also gets to our goal of getting people to visit neighborhoods because many of these sites are located in the neighborhoods.”

The tourism office is also working on a smartphone app that will allow tourists to plan and share their travel plans on Facebook and Twitter but also will allow people traveling to a particular destination to search by their particular interests to see what other sites, restaurants and hotels are nearby.

That app should be available this summer. The hope is that tourists who already had a destination in mind will discover another point of interest and extend their stay. 

Getting people to Illinois attractions is one part of the tourism push; keeping them in the state a little longer is another. Kostner says extending a stay can be crucial in an industry where even an hour added onto a trip can mean big returns.

Marcia Frellick is a Chicago-based free-lance writer.




  1. Travel spending in Illinois in 2009 generated nearly $5.1 billion for federal, state and local governments. These additional taxes save an average Illinois household more than $1,000 in taxes each year, according to the Illinois Office of Tourism.
  2. Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville is the only World Heritage site in Illinois, and it is the largest prehistoric city in North America. It was larger than London was in AD 1250.
  3. The Lincoln library is the most-attended presidential library and museum in the country. 
  4. On average, leisure visitors to Illinois spent $106 per person per day. The total spent daily on average in Illinois businesses is $74 million.
  5. The average age of Illinois’ domestic leisure visitor was 46; the majority are married, and they have an average household income of $83,386.

Sources: Dave Blanchette, http://cahokiamounds.org, Office of Tourism and Travel Industries and International Trade Administration

Chicago’s most popular attractions:

(2009 attendance) 

Navy Pier 8,050,000
Millennium Park 4,000,000
Lincoln Park Zoo 3,000,000
John G. Shedd Aquarium 1,964,791
Art Institute of Chicago 1,846,889
Museum of Science and Industry 1,605,020
The Field Museum 1,325,007
Willis Tower 1,265,046


Illinois’ most popular state parks

(2009 attendance) 

1. Starved Rock State Park — 2,058,966
2. Kankakee River State Park — 1,621,609
3. Kickapoo State Recreation Area — 1,458,491
4. Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area — 1,370,322
5. Adeline Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park — 1,288,885 

Stats from Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Office of Tourism


Illinois Issues, June 2011

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