When policymakers and economists discuss economic development, they often speak in terms of manufacturing jobs, corporate relocations, tech incubators and local workforces. One overlooked economic driver that has received more attention with each year of growth is the tourism industry.

The tourism industry is the third-largest employer in Illinois. Over the past two years, the industry has created 20,000 new jobs from Chicago to Galena to Carbondale. Every $1 invested in tourism generates $9 in economic activity and impact. This money pours into restaurants, nightlife and tourist attractions. Tourism industry experts in Chicagoland reported selling 1.27 million hotel room nights in Fiscal Year 2017. Chicago is on pace to attract 54 million visitors by the end of the current year.

In recent years, Chicago has outpaced the national average for tourism growth. With its Michelin-star restaurants, renowned performance venues, famous museums and ample transportation infrastructure, the city is home to plenty of world-class attractions that are easily accessible by planes, trains and cars.

Located just steps from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is Navy Pier, which is the most-visited tourist destination in Illinois and the Midwest. Navy Pier attracts over 9.3 million visitors annually. As Navy Pier celebrates its centennial this year, developers have renovated and updated the premises. They have installed a new 200-foot Ferris wheel, a bandstand, environmentally sustainable landscaping, new docks and a site for a hotel with views of the skyline.

The Ferris wheel is a significant piece of Chicago’s history. The Ferris wheel was invented by Illinois engineer George Washington Ferris for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Ferris wheel built for the World’s Fair stood an astounding 25 stories high and could hold nearly 1,500 passengers. Today, the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier is homage to Chicago’s history.

The work that officials at Navy Pier and countless other attractions around Illinois have done to keep up with trends and priorities in the hospitality and tourism industries exemplifies what keeps Illinois among the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Investments to preserve what has attracted crowds in the past and investments to draw in new generations of visitors are important to a region’s long-term success as a tourism hub and strong economy. Condé Nast Traveler readers recently voted Chicago the top big U.S. city for tourism, which is an improvement after third- and second-place showings in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Chicago’s impressive achievement of attracting 54 million visitors in 2017 suggests that tourism efforts are progressing toward the city’s goal of 55 million visitors per year by 2020.

Beyond Chicagoland, tourism is booming in smaller towns like Champaign-Urbana. Like other towns in rural parts of the state, restauranteurs in the central Illinois metro area are taking advantage of Illinois’ strong agriculture by building a culinary scene around local produce. In recognition of the exciting and diverse culinary scene, readers of Midwest Living magazine recently named Champaign-Urbana a “Great Food Town in the Midwest.” Champaign-Urbana is also known for its craft brewing scene, its art and science museums and all of the amenities that go along with having a world-class university in town.

Recent reports show that the tourism sector is poised to continue expanding in Illinois. Public and private interests are working together to incentivize future development and take advantage of the economic growth that comes with a strong tourism industry.

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