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Tourism dollars adding up

PRINCETON — If tourism statistics can be used as the measuring stick, the recession in Illinois appears to be easing up a bit.

Gov. Pat Quinn has announced Illinois had record-breaking tourism numbers statewide for the 2012 year. Illinois saw 99 million domestic visitors in 2012, which is a 6.1 percent increase over the record 93.3 million U.S. residents that traveled to Illinois in 2011. That tourism surge has accounted for more that $31 billion for the state’s economy, Quinn said.

“Another year of record-breaking numbers proves that travel is back, and the tourism industry in Illinois is thriving,” Quinn said. “Our world-class cultural attractions and destinations continue to attract more and more visitors to Illinois each year, which in turn directly drives the state’s economic growth.”

The Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway, which runs through portions of Bureau County, has also seen an increase in tourism, according to Anaise Berry, executive director.

Looking at the national recession and the past several years, Berry said travel expenditures (money spent by travelers on things like public transportation, food service, auto transportation, lodging retail and entertainment/recreation) for the 10-county Illinois River Road region had been steadily increasing the three years prior to the recession in 2009.

“Travel expenditures have once again continued to increase year over year and equal or have surpassed travel expenditures prior to the recession,” the executive director said.

As another measuring stick, Berry said the Illinoisriverroad.org website had nearly 100,000 visitors during the past 12 months, which represents a 20 percent increase over the previous year.

As far as reasons for the increased tourism in the state, Berry said more and more Illinoisans are staying right here and exploring their own state. With gas prices on the rise, folks have a lot they can explore right here in the Illinois River Valley and throughout the state without having to travel to other states, she said.

Also, Berry said the United States and the state of Illinois are putting forth a much-needed and long overdue effort to market the United States and Illinois to international visitors. That marketing doesn’t just open up opportunities for Chicago, but also for the Illinois River Road region and the rest of the state. International visitors vacation for longer periods of time than Americans do, and they look to explore “authentic or rural America,” not just the big cities.

Specific for the Illinois River Road, Berry said the increased popularity of the area can be credited to a definite increase in awareness through the advertising done with local and regional partners, with signage, a newly re-designed website and community kiosks which were installed last year, such as the one on Bureau Valley Parkway in Princeton. These all work together to bring attention to the Illinois River Road region and make it a more attractive destination for visitors.

On Monday, Princeton Tourism/Marketing Director Joni Hunt said the local tourism numbers for Bureau County have not yet been posted but should become available in a few days. However, she’s confident local tourism dollars will also have seen an increase this past year, even in the 10 percent range, she said.

Hunt credits that increase to doing a much better job of having a comprehensive plan for marketing. More marketing of local events is done outside a 50-mile radius to increase overnight stays in Princeton and the county. Tourism definitely impacts the local economy, she said.

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