“Tourism is a powerful economic engine for the southwest Illinois region and must continue to receive strong investments over the coming year,” Cory Jobe, president/CEO of the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau said during the Bureau’s annual Tourism Summit held on Feb. 8 at the Gateway Convention Center in Collinsville.
Speaking to a sold-out venue of over 400 attendees, Jobe noted that while 2023 saw an increase in travelers and traveler spending in the region, the addition of new tourism products and strong destination marketing will be key to growth in 2024.
Jobe announced some of those new products and initiatives during the lunch meeting. They include:
- A series of 10 self-service Kayak Kiosks at eight locations along the Mississippi River and Illinois Rivers in Madison and Jersey Counties. The kiosks should be accessible to the public by early Fall.
- Ground breaking will take place on both the new Byway Discovery Center at Piasa Park outside of Alton and expansion plans for the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower in Hartford.
- Aerie’s Resort will open the new Byway Flyway – a 1,300-foot-long zipline race down the river bluffs in Grafton.
- The Lighting of the Clark Bridge in Alton will take place with the addition of thousands of new LED lights.
- The Last 100 Miles of Route 66 will also see new projects. The projects are funded by $850,000 in grants from the State of Illinois. The Route 66 projects include:
- A neon sign park in Granite City showcasing the city’s ghost neon signs. The new park will be called “It’s Electric on Route 66” and it will be located in The District area of the city. The park will also include a music band stand and EV Charging stations.
- An RV Park, Campground and EV Charging Station at the Pink Elephant Antique Mall in Livingston.
- A drive-through Route 66 shield at Classic Country Cars in Staunton.
- A 20-foot by 60-foot mural will be created at the historic Sky View Drive-In Theater in Litchfield.
- The Ariston Café in Litchfield will receive a make over in celebration of its 100th anniversary.
- The City of Girard will install new gateway entry signs to welcome the growing number of visitors to the community.
“Optimizing visitors is influenced by our efforts at product development. Product development should be our focus as a region, working together to drive even more nonresident spending…resulting in a better quality of life for us! We need to address and raise our own situational awareness of how important our public lands, natural assets, and outdoor recreation facilities are and the expanded economic contribution they could drive. We need to ensure we effectively steward these assets to their full potential,” Jobe noted.
The visitor economy was strong in 2023 and that is expected to continue in 2024, Mr. Jobe said. In 2022, tourism accounted for visitor spending of over $825 million, a 20% increase from the previous year. Tourism also generated more than $36 million in local tax revenue during the same time period. He noted the 2022 numbers is the most recent spending data available from the Illinois Office of Tourism.
In 2023, visitors flocked to southwest Illinois from target markets including Central Illinois (Springfield, Champaign, Decatur, Bloomington, and Normal); Chicago; St. Louis; Paducah, Ky.; Cape Girardeau, Mo.; and Springfield, Mo. Overall, 65% of leisure visitors to the region came from outside the State of Illinois, according to data from the Bureau’s data partner Zartico.
Even with the strength of those numbers, Jobe pointed out investment in the region must continue.
“We must continue to invest in destination marketing, sales and promotion,” he said. “We need more public sector investment to be competitive in the tourism landscape.”
In addition to highlights of the visitor economy, the Bureau honored businesses, organizations and individuals who have made a difference throughout the region.
Honored at the event were:
- Tourism Partner of the Year: Alton River Dragons, the Prospect League baseball team which makes its home at Lloyd Hopkins Field in Alton.
- Friend of Tourism Award: Madison County Transit
- Best New Businesses:
- Historic Red Rooster Inn, Hillsboro
- 1929 Pizza and Wine, Wood River
- Best Festival: Litchfield Pickers Market
- Best Events in the Region:
- Christmas Wonderland and the volunteer efforts of The Grandpa Gang in Alton
- Opera Edwardsville’s Outdoor Concert at Edwardsville’s City Park
- Best New Venue: Urban Collective Boutique Hotel and the Ink House, Edwardsville
- Best Adaptive Reuse: Schroeppel Brown House in Collinsville
For more information on Great Rivers & Routes visit www.riversandroutes.com.