Tourism development is key to regional recovery and resilience

Creating the next great destination in Southwest Illinois is more than a few kind words. It’s a plan taking shape in the Great Rivers & Routes region that will create transformative change, give the region a boost in economic development, and create a place for families and retirees to relocate.

Tourism was hit hard during the pandemic, but is now rebounding. We are seeing a renewed sense of getting back on the road, exploring new places and having new experiences among travelers.

Hotels in our area are reporting that they are beginning to return to pre-pandemic occupancy levels. Locally owned and operated small businesses and restaurants are getting back on their feet and celebrating the return to normal operations.

Probably the most phenomenal news is the number of new businesses opening in our area right now:

• We are seeing growth in the number of new restaurants and hotels opening in Southwestern Illinois.

• The sports tourism economy is set to explode in our region as new tournaments eye the region for upcoming multi-million dollar events.

• Three major river cruise lines are planning over 60 stops in our region this year alone, bringing thousands of new travelers to the region with an economic impact of millions.

Southwestern Illinois is literally poised to become the next big destination and the perfect place to visit, live, and raise a family.

It is important that area residents understand what new product development will do to the quality of life of our local communities and the region as a whole. Active living amenities are highly sought after by young families, retirees and new start-ups.

It’s not just about visitors, small businesses and revenue. It’s a question of habitability and improving the quality of life of the people who live here.

To give our six-county region that livability edge, we know we need to be forward-thinking and develop new tourism products, strategies and thinking around outdoor recreation, nature-based tourism and Route 66. Route 66 will be 100 years old in 2026. Route 66 is one of many corridors of opportunity in the region along with Illinois Route 3 and US Route 67.

Southwestern Illinois is ideally positioned to become a mecca for outdoor recreation. As we speak, we have hundreds of miles of nationally recognized biking and hiking trails through Madison County Transit and the Metro East Parks and Recreation District. We have three mighty rivers flowing through the area forming a great confluence of rivers which launched a nation with the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

We are home to three state parks – including the largest – Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton and probably one of the oldest, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Cahokia Mounds. We are home to two Federal Wildlife Refuges and a 50,000 acre Corps of Engineers Open Space footprint. We have the only outdoor climbing trails within 100 miles. The area is home to two large water parks and numerous paddling pools. Lou Yaeger Lake in Litchfield is a premier family recreation location offering boating, fishing, camping and accommodation. We sit on the Mississippi River National Water Trail which is being discovered by more and more paddlers.

For those looking for nature-based tourism and river adventures on the water, scenic bike rides and hiking adventures, this region is ideally located to prove itself as a major hub of active living. Product development in these areas would include a kayak/canoe outfitter and easy access to the river. Access to bike rentals would also be essential.

The last 100 miles of historic Route 66 is set for new direction and product development thanks to a $919,000 grant from the State of Illinois. With these funds, an interactive visitor center and Route 66 exhibit will be created in Edwardsville. The historic and original Cannonball Jail in Carlinville will be modernized and open to the public for the first time.

Twelve postcard-style murals will be painted on historic Route 66 buildings in 12 different communities and six metal monuments depicting the classic Route 66 shield will find homes in key cities. These projects will be a key element in increasing visitor engagement along the Mother Route and launching our region towards the Centennial celebration in 2026.

That’s not all, of course. The State of Illinois recognizes these assets and recently provided a $10 million capital credit for the development of the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway between Hartford and Alton. These funds will help us redefine this historic national highway and expand existing tourism products, including the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower, Lewis & Clark State Historic Site and Piasa Park in Alton.

The funds are also intended to enable the region to develop the Port of Alton for cruise ship access and to continue to improve Alton’s waterfront as a destination for travelers. We are also well positioned to compete for additional Federal Byway funding in conjunction with local, state and federal agency partners.

We have a lot of work to do in the coming months. We cannot wait years to build the destination that we can and should be. We will all have to work together. We know this region and the Grandes Rivières et Routes Tourist Office is ready to take up the challenge.

Let’s all come together to make it happen. We are already on our way and creating the next great destination in Southwestern Illinois is within our reach!

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