Impact of tourism in Southwestern Illinois helps drive local economies

Impact of tourism in Southwestern Illinois helps drive local economies


Now that we are all permitted to get out of the house, perhaps it is time to rediscover the amenities tourists come here to experience in our own backyard.

Speaking of tourism, I spoke with Cory Jobe, the president and CEO of Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau, about what brings people to Southwestern Illinois. Jobe comes to Southwestern Illinois from a four-year stint as director of the Illinois Office of Tourism, Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. A major catch for our region! Before joining us, he also served as vice president of marketing and communication for Navy Pier in Chicago. Great Rivers and Routes represents the Illinois counties of Madison, Macoupin, Montgomery, Jersey, Calhoun and Greene.

I asked him the obvious question, “Why would you take a tourism job in the middle of a pandemic?”

He said he was happy to be here because he missed working with destination marketing. So, I pressed him on the fact that tourism, including business at restaurants and lodging/hospitality took a major hit in 2020. In fact, according to the May 2020 online publication Illinois Policy, 73% of firms in tourism and lodging expected to close permanently.

Jobe said he thought that number was a little high.

“Business owners have to be creative. Unfortunately, some businesses did shut down. It’s not the strongest recovery but we’re getting there.”

As anyone following the pandemic knows, we are not at the elusive herd immunity level yet, and another threat, the Delta variant is in the U.K. and Dr. Anthony Fauci, with the National Institutes of Health, fears it may come to the U.S. Jobe noted that he is closely following developments and is keenly aware of the possibility of another round of COVID.

“We can’t shut down again. I don’t think many small businesses could survive. From an industry perspective, it would be disastrous. I stay as optimistic as possible,” Jobe said.

That optimism translates to numbers in the future comparable to pre-pandemic levels. He thinks that hotel/motel occupancy levels will reach 60% this year, compared with 80% in 2019. He cited group travel, motorcoach, meetings, leisure travel and youth sports tournaments as sources for a recovery, saying that later this fall we’ll be back to these levels. He also cited a positive in the pent-up demand for travel, “People want to go out on road trips and see family.”

“The biggest problem facing small businesses now is a shortage of workers,” he said.

How can you and I contribute to the recovery? Southwestern Illinois has some of the most “delicious” destinations in the Midwest, Jobe said. His admonition to us is to, “Get out and enjoy our area’s amenities.”

Being fully vaccinated, I plan to take him up on that.

Our region was created and prospered because of its proximity to the Mississippi River and Jobe wants to bring the river back to the front of tourism.

“I see the river as an opportunity. I want to see more recreation on the river,” he said.

From an economic development point of view, tourism is the third largest industry in Illinois. Organizations like Great Rivers and Routes are funded by the hotel/motel tax along with a portion of state funds. The efforts of those groups in Southwestern Illinois create business for the top venues here.

“We’re not only regional and national, we attract international visitors. We work with Brand USA, which is the nation’s marketing agency, to promote international travel to Illinois,” Jobe said.

To see what’s going on in the region, go to https://www.riversandroutes.com/things-to-do/ or Google Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau and click on “Things To Do.” Illinois is open for business. Get out there and enjoy yourselves! Maybe even take a “staycation” this year because there is plenty of things to do.

James M. Grandone is a long-time resident of Edwardsville. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois and is a former Coro Fellow. He is a member of the Chicago Bar Association and the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs. He lives in the Leclaire neighborhood with his wife, Mary.


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