Chicago and the Midwest may be tired of being called the “flyover territory,” but it’s true. Legions of Europeans and Asians who vacation in the United States call regularly at New York, Washington, San Francisco, especially Orlando, but seem unaware that Chicago and its vast inland empire even exist.
Chicago, at long last, is showing signs of doing something about this. It’s time for the rest of the Midwest to do the same.
Tourism is a trillion-dollar industry worldwide. It’s the world’s biggest service industry, generating some 30 percent of global service-sector exports. Every year, 62 million foreign tourists spend $116 billion here. Altogether, foreign and American tourists generate $759 billion in spending and create 14 million jobs, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
If you aren’t part of this bonanza, you’re missing a lot. Chicago and, to an even greater degree, the rest of the Midwest aren’t cashing in.
This has been a big issue in Chicago for some time. By some calculations, tourism already is the city’s #1 industry, but the overwhelming majority of these visitors are other Midwesterners. Not that we don’t like Iowans, but these folks come to Chicago anyway, to see a game or a show, and don’t have to be lured by ads.
Despite this, most of Chicago’s tourism promotion has been aimed at precisely these people. Until recently, the city’s tourism budget let it advertise within a 500-mile radius, from Omaha in the west to Pittsburgh in the east. Basically, we were just talking to ourselves.
The result is that, for most of the world’s travelers, Chicago is terra incognita. Ninety years after gangland guns stopped roaring, Chicago remains best known for Al Capone.
First-time visitors come to Chicago, gawk at the city’s architecture and lakefront and say, “Wow, what a surprise!” This is ridiculous. Nearly a century and a half after its big fire, Chicago should stop being a surprise to anyone.
No city is a global city these days unless it gets global tourists. Chicago, anxious to bolster its global status, is taking action.
The city has merged its tourism and convention bureaus into a new bureau called Choose Chicago and doubled its budget to $32.6 million. It has opened nine foreign offices. Its promotions appear in eight languages. It still spends $2 million every year luring tourists from Grand Rapids and St. Louis, but this new global spending will put its tourism promotion budget in the same league with New York ($40 million), if not with Las Vegas ($113.9 million) and Orlando ($49.8 million), which basically survive on tourism.
As the city’s traditional industries shrink, tourism helps fill the gap. If the old steel mills and meatpacking plants employed the immigrants of yesterday, hotels and restaurants employ today’s immigrants, often in low-level but steady jobs that give these immigrants and their families a toehold in the city’s economy.
But if Chicago is getting its tourism act together, what about the rest of the Midwest? What about the lakeside towns and resorts, the old river cities, the Victorian outposts, the state fairs, the fish-filled lakes and pheasant-filled fields, the scenic nooks (the Driftless area, Brown County, Minnesota’s North Shore, Little Egypt) that are as lovely as anything in New England but remain virtually unknown?
Obviously, these places don’t have $32 million to spend on advertising in Europe and China. So what can they do?
They can work together, that’s what. Right now, every Midwestern state has its own tourism program, geographically limited and aimed mostly at keeping potential tourists from going to neighboring states.
What about a Great Lakes campaign, marketing the Lakes as the geographical and scenic wonder that they are, luring tourists on the assumption that, if they visit one lakeside city or state, they might go on to others?
Some Great Lakes leaders such as Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett talk about branding the Lakes as America’s North Coast or New Coast or Third Coast, reminding foreign tourists that the Lakes’ 10,000 littoral miles dwarf the country’s Pacific and Atlantic coastlines.
The Driftless Area is a zone of rolling hills, winding streams and old towns centered on the upper Mississippi River and embracing parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. Its promotion is a natural four-state project that doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of these states.
For that matter, five Midwestern states share the Mississippi River, perhaps the grandest and most storied river in the world. From Itasca to the St. Louis Arch, the river courses through scenic bluffs and old river towns. There’s even a river road, not much different from the road, much promoted in Germany, that winds along the Rhine.
Not so long along, the Whistling Straits golf course north of Milwaukee hosted a PGA tournament. For four days, Lake Michigan provided the backdrop to nationally-televised event. It was a perfect time for the four Lake Michigan states to plug the lake to tourists, much as Melbourne, Australia, puts itself on the global map with its Australian Open. But they blew it.
The Midwestern Governors Association should be banding together to promote the region. The MGA, however, is not known for collaboration, so perhaps other groups – the cities along the rivers and lakes, for instance – could reach across state lines to do their own promotion.
If Chicago’s campaign works, millions of foreign tourists may flock to the city. It would be a shame if they came and gawked, ate some pizza and watched the Cubs lose, and then got on the plane and flew home to Frankfurt or Osaka without discovering that, in the land beyond O’Hare, a whole new world awaits.