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U of I professor says rural communities should development strategies for tourism in a post-pandemic Illinois

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(The Center Square) – As the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on, rural communities in Illinois faced an increasing demand from tourists seeking outdoor activities and small town experiences, and now a tourism expert says there are opportunities.

Around 111 million people visited Illinois in 2022 and spent more than $44 billion, an increase of 37% from 2021.

A University of Illinois Extension webinar encouraged rural communities to reimagine rural tourism, which in turn could advance local workforce development.

Professor Sharon Zou from the U of I Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, said the pandemic has given rural communities an opportunity.

“Because people feel safe to travel to a destination that is rural, outdoors and has lower population density,” said Zou.

Zou singled out four Illinois river towns that have capitalized on tourism, including Galena, Havana, Savanna and Grafton.

She said communities should reimagine sustainable development strategies that align with the communities’ values and understand tourists’ motivation.

“Understand your visitor. Why they are coming, where they’re coming from, what did they hear, what did they like and what they don’t like,” said Zou.

The Illinois Office of Tourism recently announced that Illinois hotel tax revenue hit a record $308 million in fiscal year 2023, which ended June 30, surpassing the previous high of $296 million in fiscal year 2019.

Zou conducted a survey to find the top destinations for rural tourists from Illinois, with Springfield coming out on top, followed by Rockford, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Branson, Missouri and Starved Rock State Park near Oglesby.

The Illinois Office of Tourism is running ads as part of its “Middle of Everything” tourism campaign. Illinois native and Illinois State University graduate Jane Lynch starred and directed the ads which promote attractions and natural wonders around the state.

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