Tour touts tourism in Illinois

CHAMPAIGN — Times may be tight, but spending by tourists in Illinois continues to grow at rates outpacing inflation.

In 2011, tourism generated $31.8 billion in revenues statewide, up 8.4 percent from the previous year, said Jan Kostner, deputy director of the Illinois Office of Tourism.

State spending by U.S. tourists grew by 8.1 percent, while spending by tourists from other countries increased by 11.8 percent, she said.

U.S. tourists accounted for about 92 percent of all travel expenditures in Illinois, with in-state residents providing about half the business, Kostner said.

Citing figures from the U.S. Travel Association, Kostner said Champaign County reaped an estimated $283 million in travel expenditures last year.

Vermilion County came in second in East Central Illinois, with about $76 million in travel expenditures, followed by Coles County at $46 million, Douglas County at $33 million and Iroquois County at $32 million.

DeWitt, Edgar, Piatt, Moultrie and Ford counties each had $10 million or less in travel expenditures last year, according to association figures.

In a visit to Memorial Stadium on Wednesday, Kostner described the state's travel and tourism strategy with about 60 people, many of them local officials.

During a follow-up interview, she said the Office of Tourism's $48 million budget is virtually the same size it was nine years ago. About half the budget goes out in grants, she said.

The office formerly divided the state into seven regions for marketing purposes. But two years ago, it consolidated those regions to four, she said.

Most of central Illinois falls into the "Land of Lincoln" region. The other three regions are "Great Rivers Country" (western areas along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers); "Trails to Adventure" (far southern Illinois); and "Chicago and Beyond" (northeastern Illinois).

Kostner said the Office of Tourism relies heavily on marketing that draws people to its website, http://www.enjoyillinois.com.

Recent additions to the site include an African-American History & Heritage page and information for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered tourists, Kostner said.

The state has also introduced mobile app features that focus on the state's architecture, wineries and other subjects, she said.

Top attractions in the state include Chicago's Navy Pier, Galena, Starved Rock State Park, Pere Marquette State Park and the Abraham Lincoln sites in the Springfield area, Kostner said.

"Lincoln still works hard for us. He's a very good promoter for the state," she said. "Poor man, he never had a notion of it."

Also speaking briefly Wednesday was University of Illinois men's gymnastics coach Justin Spring, who said community image is important in recruiting student athletes.

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