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Southwest Illinois' tourism generated record economic growth last year

During fall, a sailboat is seen on the Mississippi River. The Great River Road can be seen behind the river.
Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau
The Mississippi River, with the Great River Road behind it, is one of the biggest tourist attractions in southwest Illinois.

Tourism in select southwest Illinois counties generated a local economic impact of $1.34 billion last year, setting records for parts of the Metro East and exceeding levels seen prior to the pandemic.

The $59.3 million in local tax revenue generated by tourism is a good sign for both tourism bureaus that cover the Metro East’s counties — Clinton, Jersey, Madison, Monroe and St. Clair — as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’re continuing to see some healthy growth,” said Cory Jobe, the president and CEO of Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau based in Alton. “We’re pretty proud of that.”

The local tourism figures fit into the statewide trend, as Illinois tallied its highest-ever year for hotel revenue during fiscal 2023, according to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who’s a member of the family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain.

In 2019, Jobe’s six counties — Calhoun, Greene, Jersey, Macoupin, Madison and Montgomery — tallied $695.5 million in total spending and $18.64 million in local tax revenue, the Edwardsville Intelligencer reported.

However, in 2022, the figures for those six counties increased to $825 million in spending and $36.4 million in taxes.

The other Metro East counties, Clinton, Monroe and St. Clair, are included in a different tourism bureau’s jurisdiction. That group, Discover Downstate Illinois, covers much of southern Illinois besides the bottom tip.

Swansea-based Discover Downstate reported a local economic impact of $1.14 billion across its 21 counties last year, according to the group’s figures. That was good for $71.8 million in local tax revenue.

A sold out 60,000 person crowd at World Wide Technology Raceway watches a NASCAR Cup Series Race on June 5, 2022.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
A sold-out, 60,000-person crowd at World Wide Technology Raceway watches a NASCAR Cup Series Race on June 5, 2022.

The Enjoy Illinois 300 NASCAR race, held at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison in 2022 and 2023, is one of the reasons the region’s numbers spiked, said Darlene Chapman, president of Discover Downstate.

“We look forward to seeing the benefits it will continue to have on the tourism industry,” Chapman said.

The rise in tourism figures for the Great Rivers region can be attributed to everyday folks wanting to get outside more and success with advertising targeted to nearby Midwestern markets, Jobe said.

“We're seeing a very healthy growth in visitors traveling to the region from those key markets.” Jobe said.

Those include Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City and a number of smaller metropolitan areas all in a three- to five-hour driving distance. The goal for targeting those markets is getting travelers to take a weekend trip.

The tourists' stay average 1.5 to 1.75 nights, according to Great Rivers & Routes’ research. Keeping those visitors two nights is an objective of the organization.

“Still not that two-night stay that we would like to see, but a very strong overnight stay,” Jobe said.

Seated at a meeting in city chambers, Cory Jobe looks down a sheets of paper.
Will Bauer
St. Louis Public Radio
Cory Jobe is the president and CEO of the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau.

The Great River Road that runs parallel to the Mississippi River from Alton to where the Illinois and Mississippi rivers split 20 miles west is a popular spot in the region, Jobe said. Pere Marquette State Park, Illinois’ biggest, is another place that draws attention. There’s also the last 100 miles of historic Route 66.

Thanks to the visitors last year, Madison County saw an additional $512.1 million in tourism spending. Those tourists generated $15 million in tax revenue for the county.

Calhoun County, the tall slender county in between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers north of St. Louis, was the only one in the region to see its tourism numbers fall. While its visitor spending dropped 4.1%, local tax revenue generated from tourism did increase 2.4%.

In Discover Downstate’s territory, St. Clair County’s figures total $648.8 million in travel spending and $29.8 million in tax revenue.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.