Bruce Rauner, Choose Chicago’s chairman, told the Chicago Tribune’s Kathy Bergen the goal is to increase the number of annual visitors, which was close to 44 million in 2011, to 70 million a year. Not even Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has said he would like to see 50 million visitors by 2020, is that ambitious.
On top of ongoing efforts to attract marquee sporting events and cultural attractions, conventions and other attention-getting visitor magnets, privately funded proposals are reportedly being discussed, such as glass-encased gondolas strung high above the Chicago River, light shows that play out across the city’s skyscrapers and bridges, a ritzy downtown casino (if gambling in Chicago is legalized), a jazz and blues hall of fame, and more.
Some of it undoubtedly is best left on the drawing board. We’re Chicago, after all, the heart and crossroads of America. We want to be in a class with Paris, France, not the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. There’s already plenty to see and do here to fill Ferris Bueller’s three-day weekend, and there is a danger in trying too hard.
Just as dangerous, however, is in not trying enough. There is a lot of competition for tourism money at home and abroad and, depending which way the economy turns, not necessarily a growing pot of disposable cash for destinations to divvy up. Nothing wrong with trying things, so long as those things don’t erode the image and good will that already exist. This challenge is going to require more than some ads and a halfhearted slogan, like: Chicago — A Better Destination Than Wherever Your O’Hare Connection Would Take You.
Rosenthal hints at the real reason behind this push. It is isn’t just about raising the profile of Chicago or making sure Chicago is considered to be a world-class city. It is about money from tourists visiting attractions, staying in hotels, eating meals, and shopping. It is about tourists going to conventions and taking vacations that include spending money.
Even further behind this story is the idea that tourism is sometimes presented as close to a zero-sum game. Particularly in this economy, an average tourist who goes to Chicago might not be going to St. Louis or Nashville or somewhere else. With limited dollars to go around, Chicago has to successfully compete. However, the whole secret might be to attract new tourists. This might be younger people who are starting out, want to see exciting places, and might consider Chicago. (Does Navy Pier cut it with this crowd?) This might be international tourists, particularly from countries with growing middle-classes such as the BRIC nations.
In the end, tourism is big business and is an essential part of a global city’s economy. Chicago has to either grow its market share or find new customers. Preferably both.