State officials optimistic that tourism will bounce back

Chronicle Media


The Bean in Chicago’s Millennium Park. (Photo courtesy of Enjoy Illinois)

Illinois achieved its ninth consecutive year of record tourism growth in 2019 but that streak won’t continue through 2020.

After welcoming a record 120 million visitors and $43.1 billion in tourism spending last year, the numbers are likely to be significantly down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The 2019 tourism numbers demonstrate what we already know – that pre-COVID-19, Illinois offered one of the top destinations for travel in the country, supporting thousands of jobs and economic growth for our communities,” said Michael Negron, acting director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. “Unfortunately, like many industries, tourism looks much different today than it did last year.”

In 2019, visitor spending increased $1.3 billion over the prior year, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Official trends for 2020 are not readily available, but hotel vacancies, a dramatic decline in air travel and closure of popular attractions due to COVID-19 point toward a significant decline.

For example, Navy Pier, the state’s most popular tourist destination, will shutter operations after Labor Day for the second time this year.

Still, tourism officials are optimistic that travel to Illinois will bounce back.

Downtown Galena in far northwestern Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Enjoy Illinois)

“Last year’s numbers illustrate just how impactful tourism is for boosting the state’s economy,” said Karla Flannery, deputy director of the Illinois Office of Tourism. “While it’s unrealistic to expect the same results in 2020, we are looking forward to safely welcoming travelers back to Illinois and rebuilding our industry – while encouraging Illinois residents to use public health precautions in resuming local travel to any one of our iconic attractions.”

Visitor expenditures directly supported more than 344,100 jobs in the Illinois travel and tourism industry, an increase of 1,800 jobs from 2018. Travel also generated nearly $2.5 billion in state tax revenue, an increase of 7.7 percent.

According to DK Shifflet, domestic visits to Illinois in 2019 increased by 5.1 percent, reaching 120.4 million visitors, well above the national growth rate of 2 percent. Visits to the City of Chicago increased by 4.5 percent and downstate travel increased by 5.6 percent, fueled by a strong leisure tourism increase of 6 percent.

DCEO, which operates the Office of Illinois Tourism, has played a key role in working with public health officials to develop safety guidelines to permit some businesses and industries to reopen by implementing strategies to help reduce risk and protect the public as well as their employees.

While tourism has seen a marked decline in Illinois and across the country, state officials are taking steps to help residents who choose to travel to do so safely.

The Illinois Department of Public Health released new guidance to help residents take proper precautions when traveling. A COVID-19 travel map helps inform residents of potential risks associated with traveling during the pandemic. The map indicates countries and U.S. states with increased risk of COVID-19 based on case rates.

The Lodge and Conference Center at Starved Rock State Park opened in the 1930s but the rooms have been modernized over the years. (Photo courtesy of Starved Rock Lodge)

The Illinois Office of Tourism continues to work with health officials to provide guidance for residents as well as local tourism partners, including museums, amusement parks and other tourist destinations. Illinois remains under Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois guidelines.

“The state of Illinois is committed to a data-driven plan allowing a gradual reopening of key segments of our economy,” Negron said. “This public health approach, matched with our strong tourism performance in 2019, offers a strong foundation that will allow Illinois to bring visitors back as soon as it is safe to do so.”

For more information about traveling in Illinois, visit