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Tourism is key to Illinois economy recovery, says southern Illinois expert

  • Michael Jacobson, Rob Karr and Derek Blaida testify virtually before the House Tourism Committee hearing.

    Michael Jacobson, Rob Karr and Derek Blaida testify virtually before the House Tourism Committee hearing.
    Courtesy of

  • Fairgoers at the kiddie carnival in front of the grandstand at the 2019 Du Quoin State Fair.

    Fairgoers at the kiddie carnival in front of the grandstand at the 2019 Du Quoin State Fair.
    Du Quoin Call file photo/Geoffrey Ritter

By Tim Kirsininkas
Capitol News Illinois
updated: 4/14/2021 2:22 PM

SPRINGFIELD -- Leaders from the state's tourism and hospitality industry asked legislators for additional support during a Thursday committee hearing as the state plans next steps for its economic recovery.

Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, told the House Tourism Committee Thursday that hotels have "been among the hardest hit" segment of the economy in the pandemic, and the industry may not see a full recovery until 2024 at the earliest.

"The situation is certainly looking encouraging, but there's still a lot of work to do in order for the hotel and tourism industry to fully recover," Jacobson said. Recovery, he said, won't come in one or two years, but be a several-year process.

Jacobson said Illinois hotels suffered $3.5 billion in losses and more than 21,000 hotel employees were laid off over the past year.

Jacobson told legislators that allowing events and gatherings to resume in a safe manner as soon as possible and directing federal support dollars to hotels and businesses most impacted by the pandemic would be key to revitalizing that segment of the economy, which generates billions of dollars in revenue for the state every year.

"Besides keeping our employees and guests healthy and safe, our top priority is simple, getting hotel workers back to work. Our hotels want to get back up and running, but need direct financial support in the short term," Jacobson said.

In addition to short-term financial assistance, industry leaders said passing limited COVID-19 liability protections for businesses would help hotels and businesses to work toward a full recovery.

Andy Waterman, communications director for ILLINOISouth Tourism, based in Swansea, said the full affect of the pandemic on southern Illinois tourism won't be known until October, when the 2020 numbers are received. But he knows the numbers are way down, he said Monday.

"Most of our tourism is event-based tourism," he said, "things like the Du Quoin State Fair, the Pinckneyville Thresherman's Association, the Centralia Balloon Festival and Popeye Picnic (in Chester)."

All those events save the balloon fest were canceled in 2020 -- and the balloon festival was limited to a smaller, drive-through event.

"Those events draw thousands of people, and (without them) those communities have struggled big time," Waterman said.

He said in 2019, tourism was one of the top sectors of profit in Illinois. "We're attracting more and more visitors every year, not just to Chicago but throughout the state," he said. Tourism brought $43 billion into Illinois in 2019.

"Tourism is going to be the key to rebounding in the state," Waterman said.

Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said additional reopening guidelines are also needed to help struggling businesses get back on their feet.

Karr said industry leaders welcome the additional flexibility for events under the "bridge phase" to reopening, but they question how businesses can effectively enforce capacity guidelines as outlined under the plan.

"We need to maximize our businesses," Karr said, adding that just because a business is open doesn't mean it's doing OK. "No one's businesses were built to survive at 50% or even 75% occupancy," Karr said.

In the "bridge" phase, fully vaccinated people will not count against a venue's capacity restrictions. Karr said the current plan has businesses on their own having to figure out how to prove somebody is fully vaccinated.

"Respectfully, that's untenable," Karr added.

Jacobson said one alternative would be to base capacity guidelines and mitigations on hospitalization utilization rather than case positivity, as more of the state's population is vaccinated.

"This is something that we've seen a big shift in the governor and (Illinois Department of Public Health's) approach in recent weeks, and we are supportive of," Jacobson said.

Derek Blaida, representing the Illinois Restaurant Association, said the state's food service industry also relies heavily on events and tourism.

He said 20% of Illinois restaurants are expected to close permanently from the pandemic and more than 124,000 food service jobs have been lost.

"We need to keep building on pragmatic approaches to reopening regulations, so we can plan for and attract conventions, annual events, festivals and more back to our state," Blaida said. "Our world class restaurants, hotels and event venues cannot lose another summer due to regulations and occupancy caps that are just too strict."

"We just want to be steadily moving forward with incremental changes so restaurants can keep their doors open, keep serving communities, and keep people employed," he added.

• Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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