Building a Regional Destination -- Together
By Cory Jobe, President/CEO Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau
We are just beginning to heal. Many of us, in one way or another, are still suffering under the weight of the pandemic. Many of us had family members effected. Many of us had our lives disrupted. We lost jobs. We lost business. How do begin to pick ourselves up? Do we focus on putting things back the way they were…or lean forward and build the region, communities, and life we want?
The pandemic of 2020 brought the tourism and service industry to its knees with an impact that was nine times more powerful than the tragedy of 9/11. Local businesses and attractions in southwest Illinois, which relied on tourism lost employees, income, and were faced with unprecedented choices: close their doors or pivot to online sales and/or delivery services. From one day to the next, we all rode a roller coaster of uncertainty and fear.
Visitor spending and tax revenues were down more than 50% across Illinois. Locally, that meant a loss of nearly $40 million in local and state tax revenues that would have been generated from visitor spending. Prior to the pandemic, tourism was the third largest industry in our six-county region. Everyone has been impacted by those losses.
Combining losses of tax revenues, jobs and the impact on the workforce in the service industry, the pandemic triggered awareness that we are one of the top regional destinations in the Midwest and we need to focus on building a resilient tourism destination for years to come.
And now? The final months of 2021 have provided glimmers of hope for the tourism industry – both statewide and locally.
People are increasingly open to travel but they don’t want to visit the big cities and crowded attractions that once called out to them. Travelers are choosing rivers and roads over skyscrapers. Now they are planning visits to the smaller destinations with a focus on nature and outdoor activities. And guess what? That’s the Great Rivers & Routes region in southwest Illinois! We are home to four national scenic byways – The National Road, Route 66, the Great River Road and the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. We are home to the largest state park in Illinois, the Lewis & Clark National Trail and the National Mississippi Water Trail and we are located at the confluence of America’s three great rivers – the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri.
But there is so much more to our region. There are the people, the businesses, the attractions that have been the bedrock of the local tourism industry.
State and Federal assistance is timely, but we need to build capacity as a region; we need to focus, come together, and build our region back better. Together!
The Federal government is currently distributing funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to state and local governments across the country. These funds can be used to help industries negatively impacted by the pandemic. And tourism is one of those impacted industries.
It will take bold and transformational thinking to use these funds for tourism development. It will take counties and cities determining how they want to embrace the future of tourism in our region.
We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to build the destination we want to see and cement our place as a world-class destination for travelers from around the world.
We encourage regional mayors, economic development officials and community leaders to be courageous when it comes to determining how to spend ARPA funds. Custodial thinking is not enough. These funds can and should be a game changer for the tourism industry in our region.
The Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau has worked hard over the past years and especially the last 18 months to make our destination top of mind with travelers. We are welcoming back road trippers and regional travelers after a 12-month absence. But we must continue to be relevant and viable to those looking for their next travel destination whether it be for leisure activity, attending a meeting, conference, or a youth sporting event. Just marketing the destination we have is not enough anymore….and it never really was. We have to build and then steward the destination we need and could have. A destination not only for leisure travelers but also for young families, retirees, start-ups, remote workers, etc.
We need to work together to embrace tourism as the economic recovery engine for the region. To be bold thinkers. To be transformational in our planning and development along our rivers and byways. Together. Our main streets and our rivers are economic corridors that can contribute to the livability of our region. We need to be creative and innovative. We can not expect to do the same things and expect different results.
Do we, as a region, have the determination to give our local businesses and the tourism industry in general, a much-needed boost? Are we ready to be bold thinkers and invest in tourism in unprecedented ways?
Are we ready to build the destination we want by creating a livable destination for young families, active retirees, and entrepreneurs? If you don’t think we are a regional destination for tourism, then why was more than $1.4 billion spent on travel in 2018 and 2019 combined? We have a destination that people want to visit.
Local leaders, it’s up to you. We challenge you to be transformational!