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Donna Nordstrom, tourism coordinator with the Heritage Corridor Visitors Bureau, hands local brochures and magazines to Victor Luna of Chicago, who had come to fish the Illinois River with children Leo, 8, and Valeria, 12. Illinois reached a tourist milestone last year, welcoming 100 million visitors, and area tourist officials confirm that the Illinois Valley area joined in the trend. Most municipalities that track hotel-motel tax receipts reported an increase suggesting that tourism in North Central Illinois has risen over the past few years.
Oglesby went hard after the teams and families that come to the Central States sports tournaments, hoping to fill the city’s hotels and dining rooms. It’s worked. Oglesby’s hotel-motel tax receipts have climbed nearly 20 percent in two years, from just under $56,000 in Fiscal Year 2011 to nearly $68,000 in the fiscal year ending April 30. City clerk Becky Clinard said Oglesby has capitalized by recognizing people are vacationing closer to home — the fruits of a stagnant economy — and increasing the offerings to visitors from the Chicago area. “I think everything we’ve been doing — the festivals and the sporting events — are starting to have a bigger draw,” Clinard said. “I think the whole region is working better at bringing people in.” And in so doing, the Illinois Valley has helped the Land of Lincoln reach a remarkable milestone: Last year, Illinois welcomed 100 million visitors for the first time. The Associated Press reported that 2 million international visitors came to Illinois last year — an increase of 11.8 percent from just a year earlier — and the crush of foreigners lifted Illinois past the 100 million mark for the first time. Domestic visitors, too, have climbed more than 6 percent over the same period. More tourism means more money in the till. Domestic and international travelers spent $33.5 billion in Illinois last year, AP reported, which is up 5.7 percent. State officials say those dollars created nearly 300,000 jobs in the Illinois economy. The swell has been noticed both regionally and locally. As was the case in Oglesby, Peru reported a significant jump in the so-called “pillow taxes.” The city’s six hotels yielded nearly $221,000 in hotel-motel taxes in 2010; last year that figure rocketed to nearly $303,000. “There’s a sentiment that many people are staying closer to home,” agreed city clerk Dave Bartley. “And we have an excellent location in Peru with our proximity to (Interstates) 39 and 80.” Between 2010 and 2011, Ottawa’s hotel-motel taxes abruptly jumped from $274,000 to $317,000 and have stayed above the $300,000 threshold. The city owes its success not only to the new Fairfield Inn on Etna Road but also to a slew of fairs and festivals and aggressive marketing by the city and the Ottawa Visitors Center. Julie Johnson, executive director of OVC, said the agency maintains a headcount report showing how many people come in contact with OVC. That figure swelled from 5,673 five years ago to 14,114 last year, including more than 2,700 who came into town for the wine festival. “It’s exhausting, but it’s fun,” Johnson said of greeting the tide of visitors. “And if you talk to the restaurateurs, everybody was packed.” Even communities not immediately adjacent to the freeways are enjoying a bump. The Illinois Travel Effect Road Show reported tourist receipts climbed in 2012 and said North Central Illinois was among the beneficiaries. A four-county region that includes La Salle, Putnam, Will and Grundy counties reported more than $837 million in tourist receipts, up 4 percent from 2011, and $18.4 million in local tax receipts, up 5.6 percent from 2011. Starved Rock State park clearly was one of the principal draws. Starved Rock has drawn an unprecedented 8.5 million visitors over the past four years, setting a single-year attendance record in 2011 and just missing that mark again in 2012. Kathy Casstevens, marketing director for Starved Rock Lodge, noted the documented increase in international visitors at Starved Rock — she recently greeted a family from the Ukraine — a trend she attributes in part to Chicago hoteliers recommending the park as a worthy side trip. “And how wonderful that we have people who advocate from Chicago,” she said. “Not only are we the best place to be outside Chicago, but also a great halfway point between Chicago and Springfield and Chicago and St. Louis.” Joe Hook, general managing partner at Grand Bear Lodge in Utica, said he hasn’t had many international travelers but otherwise agreed that tourist activity has climbed at his resort and conference center. “Overall, our numbers were up slightly,” Hook affirmed. “It is trending in the right direction.”