Chicago officials point to signs of a tourism rebound

Chicago reported an 86% increase in visitors last year compared with 2020, while a downtown business group said trends for 2022 are positive.

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People walk and relax on the Chicago River Walk on Monday, June 13, 2022.

Choose Chicago and the Chicago Loop Alliance have released reports showing substantial increases in tourism and in downtown activity since COVID-19 hit in 2020.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Chicago recorded an 86% increase in visitors last year compared with 2020, a result that shows pent-up tourism demand, city officials said Wednesday.

The 30.7 million domestic and international travelers who came to Chicago in 2021 represent a healthy business comeback that has continued through this year as pandemic restrictions ease, said Mayor Lori Lightfoot and leaders of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism promoter. In 2020, amid a broader economic shutdown, the city reported just 16.3 million visitors.

But the new tourism count represents only half of the nearly 61 million visitors the city reported in 2019, before the onset of COVID-19.

Lightfoot said the 2021 data “show that visitors throughout the United States and world are hungry to return to our incredible city.”

Lynn Osmond, the CEO of Choose Chicago, called it “a true testament to Chicago’s resilience and strength as a top destination for tourists, businesses and events. I have never been more confident in our ability to make a full recovery.”

She said the improvements came even though Chicago didn’t reach a Phase 5 economic reopening until June 2021 and the international travel ban lasted until November. Total tourism spending here was estimated at $9.8 billion in 2021, about half the total from 2019.

The 2021 report was released at Choose Chicago’s annual convention. The report cited other evidence of the sector’s recovery, such as tourism-related employment returning to 60% of pre-pandemic levels.

It also reported a sharp turnaround in bookings at the city’s hotels, which yielded a 163% increase in tax revenue compared with 2020. By the end of 2021, average room rates were 90% of pre-pandemic levels, the report said.

Meanwhile, research by the Chicago Loop Alliance, representing downtown businesses, showed a continued pickup in activity this year. In its report covering May, the group said hotel occupancy reached its highest level since the pandemic began and pedestrian counts came close to pre-pandemic levels.

The only indicator that dipped slightly from April’s data was office occupancy, at 44% in May. The alliance reported continued strong demand in Loop parking garages, while ridership rates for Metra and the CTA still lag pre-pandemic levels.

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