We all move to the suburbs in the pursuit of happiness -- or at least better schools, safer neighborhoods, affordable homes and the like. But when it comes to vacations, the suburbs often get tagged as "It's a nice place to live, but we wouldn't want to visit there."
Given vacation time and budgets, we're likely to jet off to faraway places, cities on the coasts or the tourism magnets of Michigan and Wisconsin. But Illinois and some places in our backyards offer great vacation options. The Illinois Office of Tourism's website features a tournament going on now in which voters are narrowing 64 tourist attractions in the state to a single favorite. Videos pit Honest Abe against the Field Museum's Sue the T. rex. The list will be narrowed to the Final Four this weekend with only one suburban entry still vying for a spot among the jewels of Chicago and some downstate natural wonders.
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"Brookfield Zoo is still in the running," says Jan Kostner, deputy director of the Illinois Office of Tourism.
Just as Illinois sometimes gets overlooked by tourists, the suburbs sometimes get overlooked by those tourists who do travel around Illinois. If you were vacationing somewhere in Michigan and heard there was a dairy festival nearby, you'd probably ramble on and on about the quaintness of the milk-drinking contest or how much the kids loved the tractor pull. Illinois has that going on this weekend with Harvard Milk Days.
Of course, Milk Days competes with other area weekend offerings such as the Glencoe Grand Prix bike race, the 13th annual Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine and Fine Arts Festival in Waukegan, the Kane County Flea Market in St. Charles, the Garden Fair and AirFest air show in Rockford, the 38th annual Wright Plus Housewalk tour in Oak Park, the Third annual Star Wars Day in Joliet, the 10th annual Fine Arts Festival in Oak Brook, the annual Strawberry Jazz Festival in Kankakee, the Sixth annual Frontier Kite Fly Festival in Naperville, the 53rd annual Rose Parade in Roselle, the new bug exhibit at Brookfield Zoo and the usual farmers markets, fun runs, concerts, sporting events and other attractions within an hour's drive of most suburban homes.
But mood sells. Even if you don't like "Pure Michigan" narrator Tim Allen, golf or beaches with cold water, those enticing ads are recognized as a great advertising promotion for Michigan tourism. Still, the 8-year-old Illinois tourism slogan of "Mile After Magnificent Mile" "has a higher recall," notes Kostner, who adds that the Midwestern states have a "friendly competition" as we go after tourists' dollars. Illinois also uses the "There Is A Place" theme to showcase the diverse offerings in the state.
Wisconsin hired native son David Zucker of "Airplane" and "The Naked Gun" fame to direct a funny TV commercial on behalf of the cheeseheads up north, and Green Bay's own Tony "Monk" Shahloub does a spot. Allen, the actor famous for "Home Improvement" and as the voice of Buzz Lightyear, narrates the Michigan spots. Everybody from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Rob Lowe shills for California. Illinois doesn't play the celebrity card.
"We made a strategic decision to play on the strengths of the destinations," Kostner says of Illinois. While the tourism advertising budget has been a "flat" $17 million for the past eight years, Kostner says hits on the enjoyillinois.com website are up 114 percent from last year and the state sees $6 in income from every $1 spent on tourism ads. We drew 1.7 million overseas tourists in 2010, and that number is sure to grow given the recent good publicity that came out of the NATO meeting, Kostner says.
More than half of the 86.4 million tourists the state attracted in 2010 are Illinois residents just visiting other parts of the state -- from the world-class museums in Chicago to the history of Springfield to the natural beauty along the Mississippi River and downstate. We are our own best customers.
"That's who Michigan and Wisconsin are going after, too," Kostner says.
Just as the suburbs are the key to most elections, we also have the power to decide whether Illinois, Michigan or Wisconsin wins the battle for tourists. And just maybe, we could even visit a few suburban places close to home.