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Chicago is a tourism mecca? Take a closer look

Other cities and regions are bigger visitor draws or growing faster. Based on hotel-room demand growth, downtown Chicago has done better than Los Angeles but is well behind New York City.

Chicago skyline as seen from Soldier Field.
Chicago has a thriving tourism industry — but so do other American cities.
Sun-Times files

Like an unusually early spring robin, the headlines have appeared every January for most of the past decade:

“Chicago sets new tourism record with nearly 58 million visitors in 2018.”

“Record-breaking number of tourists visit Chicago in 2017.”

“Chicago welcomed a record number of tourists in 2016.”

According to figures from Choose Chicago, the city’s convention and tourism office, the number of visitors — including business and pleasure travelers — has been rising steadily since the 2010 post-recession low.

“We didn’t just ride the national wave; we’re ahead of it,” outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in January when the latest figures were released. “No city has seen that kind of exponential growth, from 39 million to more than 57 million.”

OK, so tourism in Chicago is on the rise. But is it really increasing faster than everywhere else? Probably not.

Tourism booming all over

To get a handle on tourism trends nationally, search online for “record tourism [insert random U.S. city].” You’ll get results like this:

“NYC’s record tourism streak continued in 2018 with 65 million visitors.”

“Eighth consecutive year of tourism growth for Los Angeles.”

“Tourism in Cleveland sets record for visitors in 2018.”

Since the recession, tourism has been booming all over.

Determining whether Chicago is seeing more growth than elsewhere is tougher than you might think.

WorldAtlas, a web resource for travelers, lists Chicago as No. 2 among the most-visited cities in the United States, with 54.1 million visitors in 2016 — behind New York with 59.7 million and ahead of Atlanta with 51 million.

No disrespect to WorldAtlas, but that makes no sense. New York City has three times the population of Chicago. It can’t possibly have just 10% more visitors.

Hospitality industry experts have an explanation for the discrepancy: There’s no reliable list of the most visited U.S. cities because there’s no standard way of counting visitors. Overnight travelers only? Or do you include day-trippers, too? Visitors to anywhere in a metro area? Or strictly within city limits?

On top of that, each of the firms used by cities to track tourism has its own methodology.

Apples and oranges

As a result, the numbers touted by local tourism bureaus — the most common source of visitor data — are a classic case of apples and oranges that can’t be compared.

A spokeswoman for NYC & Company, the New York visitor marketing bureau, was miffed that the number of visitors reported by her agency — 65.2 million for 2018 — is for the city’s five boroughs only, while the number claimed by Orlando, Florida, gateway to Walt Disney World, which isn’t actually in the city — 75 million visitors in 2018 — is for the entire metropolitan area.

Choose Chicago reported 57.6 million visitors for 2018. Asked whether that was for the city only or the whole metro area, the agency wouldn’t say.

“The focus of the survey methodology . . . is more on what panelists did (activities) during their visit as well as the purpose of visit (business, leisure, etc.),” a spokesman says. “It does not focus on what specific hotel they may have stayed at nor a specific address if they stayed in an Airbnb, friends’ or relative’s home.”

Given the lack of specifics and the disparity between the size of the cities and the tourism numbers each cites, the only reasonable conclusion is that Chicago’s figures reflect visits to anywhere in the metropolitan area, not just the city.

Comparing cities’ success in attracting visitors isn’t impossible. The one metric reported by virtually all cities is demand for hotel rooms. That omits day-trippers or overnight visitors who stay somewhere other than a hotel. And it doesn’t distinguish between captive business travel and discretionary visits. Still, it offers a reasonable basis for gauging how well cities are doing relative to one another over time.

The hospitality industry’s go-to source for hotel data is STR, a Tennessee travel research firm.

According to hotel-room demand figures for the 25 largest U.S. metro areas for 2008 and 2018 that STR provided, the Chicago region ranks No. 4, with 31 million so-called “room-nights” sold in 2018. That puts the Chicago area behind metro New York (61 million), metro Los Angeles (47 million) and metro Orlando (35 million).

Las Vegas would top all of the cities on the list. But its hotels report data only to the Nevada Gaming Commission, not to STR, so the firm doesn’t include Las Vegas.

Hotel-room demand growth in the Chicago area — and regional growth is what the city’s reported visitor numbers most likely indicate — grew by 21% between 2008 and 2018. That was good for only 19th place on STR’s list.

Hotel-room demand growth in downtown Chicago was much stronger — 38% between 2008 and 2018. That was better than Los Angeles/Long Beach (23%) but well behind New York City, where hotel demand grew by a remarkable 61%. For sheer volume, the hotel markets within the city limits of New York and L.A. are both much larger than Chicago’s.

New York is tourism king

So, by objective measures — and hotel-room demand is the only such measure there is — Chicago isn’t actually ahead of the national wave when it comes to tourism. Other cities and regions are bigger visitor draws or are growing faster.

Setting aside Las Vegas, the most dynamic tourism market in the country surely is New York.

The point here isn’t to pop the Chicago hospitality industry’s bubble but instead to offer a reality check. The city isn’t blowing away the rest of the country. It’s doing reasonably well in a competitive business.

Chicago’s strength clearly is its booming downtown — increasingly dominant in tourism, counting both business and pleasure travel, as in so much else in the urban economy.

This is part of the series City at the Crossroads by journalist Ed Zotti, who looks in-depth at trends affecting Chicago and critical choices the city faces.

Email comments to: letters@suntimes.com.