Champaign County part of international tourism showcase

Champaign County part of international tourism showcase

URBANA — It's not the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas or the Big Apple, but Illinois agriculture is drawing tourists.

Last year about 40 international tour groups came to Champaign County to witness aspects of American agriculture.

Visit Champaign County, the local tourism bureau, figures those trips involved nearly 1,600 travelers and had an economic impact of about $390,000.

On Thursday, 16 tour operators came to town to find what they can offer international tourists in coming years.

Among the sites they visited:

— Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery on the north side of Champaign-Urbana.

— The University of Illinois agricultural college.

— A cattle farm north of Champaign.

— Hardy's Reindeer Ranch in Rantoul.

Today, they'll visit the Pioneer Hi-Bred facility near St. Joseph and The Andersons grain elevator in Champaign, among other places.

It's all part of AgriTours Illinois, a program offered by tourism bureaus in Champaign County and the Quad Cities to showcase Midwestern agriculture.

"You can't ask for a better way to sell your community than by being able to show receptive tour operators in person your offerings," said Angela Ingerson, the Champaign County bureau's leisure sales and tourism director.

The visiting delegation — which included eight media representatives — hailed from China, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Norway, Costa Rica and Taiwan. It also included some U.S.-based operators who work with groups from abroad.

Sheena Yu of Los Angeles-based Galaxy Tours was agog at what she saw at Prairie Fruits Farm. She said it was a "great surprise" to see gelato made from goat's milk.

Yu said she typically customizes travel packages for 60 to 70 Chinese tour groups each month. But normally those groups visit destinations around San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Visiting the Midwest would be something "very new" for them, she said. She came to Champaign and the Quad Cities in hopes of getting new ideas for destinations and finding places of interest to Chinese travelers.

Yu said she was particularly looking forward to a stop Saturday at the John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline.

She added that she was eager to sample Midwestern cuisine, noting that for many Chinese tourists, "the No. 1 thing is food." She and her travel companions marveled at the cheese they sampled at Prairie Fruits Farm and looked forward to a "farm-to-fork" meal at Champaign's Big Grove Tavern.

Alexey Dneprovoi of St. Petersburg, Russia, said he operates a website that focuses on tourist destinations.

"I want to get articles and short video clips of the agricultural center of America," he said, speaking through an interpreter.

Dneprovoi said he was born on a collective farm, where he did seven years of field work. He said he dreamed of what life was like on American farms.

"Now I have an opportunity to see it with my own eyes," he said.

Cathy Greteman, the owner of Iowa-based Star Destinations, said she has worked closely with AgriTours Illinois for several years.

When clients express an interest in an ag tour, she tries to determine what they're looking for and sets things up.

"What they're often looking for is the newest technology," she said. "They're always interested in the variety of livestock. Seeing the goat farm was wonderful."

The greatest interest in agricultural tours has come from South America, she said, but interest from Asia is growing.

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