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Economic development specialist offers ideas to attract tourists to rural communities

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(The Center Square) – Illinois has been losing population for years, especially young people, but an economic development specialist believes people can be drawn back for tourism.

According to the Illinois Governor’s Conference on Travel and Tourism during fiscal year 2023, 111 million travelers visited Illinois creating an economic impact of $78 billion.

Pandemic restrictions generated interest in rural outdoor activities. During a University of Illinois Extension webinar on marketing rural tourism, Pam Schallhorn said recreation dependent counties grew more than twice as fast as the nation overall and Midwest recreational counties mirrored the trend.

“If you’re looking for growth, if you’re looking for population to move back into your community, if you’re looking for young people to move in, then you ought to take whatever recreational, natural resource tourism assets you have and make sure you get it out to that group,” said Schallhorn.

This year’s eclipse gave a lot of southern Illinois towns a tourism boost, as many reported hotels being booked weeks in advance.

In 2022, the I-Rural Project, funded by the Extension and Illinois’ Office of the Provost Investment for Growth Program, developed a model to guide rural tourism development across the state. The four river-based communities of Grafton, Galena, Havana and Savanna piloted the project.

According to an I-Rural Project survey, the number one attribute to attract tourists is natural scenery, followed by tourist sites and then food. The rural attributes liked the least were a long distance to a destination and a lack of shops and stores.

According to the survey, the top information sources about tourism is from family and friends, followed by a previous visit and social media.

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