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Safe Travels

Pandemic and state ad campaign boost outdoor tourism

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As bad as the last 15 months have been with the COVID-19 pandemic, some Southern Illinois businesses – especially those that sell “the great outdoors” – have thrived.

“It was the only good thing that came out of the pandemic,” said Denny Bush, manager of Larry’s Trailer Sales in Ziegler. “The entire recreational vehicle experienced a great year and sales are still up.”

In fact, Bush said his business, like other RV dealers across the nation, are having trouble getting enough inventory.

“The market is still there. It’s booming,” he said.

Those with places to stay have had significant upswings in business, too.

Jim Morgan has been in the Southern Illinois rental cabin business for a decade. He said he has never seen a time like this before.

“About April of last year, we started getting full in all of our cabins and we ended up setting an occupancy record for the year,” he said.

Morgan offers four units branded as Woodland Cabins located near Carbondale. He said reservations continue to come in.

“We’ve set occupancy rate records for 12 months straight and I can see that continuing through 2021,” he said.

Others in the outdoor hospitality industry are seeing the same results.

“When business came back after the initial shutdown, it came back roaring and it’s insanity right now,” said Doug DeVore, owner of Shawnee Forest Cabins, a collection of rental cabins near the Shawnee National Forest.

He said his rental units are currently booking months in advance, a testament to people wanting to get away and “get away from it all.”

State tourism boost

Lodging such as the cabins and places such as Garden of the Gods and other locations within and around the Shawnee National Forest are among places the state of Illinois is spotlighting this summer to boost its tourism and travel industries after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveiled the "Time For Me To Drive" advertising campaign earlier this month, pitching it as a method that "introduces tourists to an Illinois they may not have seen before." 

Those destinations include "natural assets," such as the Shawnee National Forest and Starved Rock State Park, and "manmade ones too," including the cities of Chicago, Bloomington and Springfield.  

Also on a list of 60 state-curated itineraries are hundreds of restaurants and breweries, museums – places hardest hit by the pandemic – as well as the state's seven national scenic byways and highways. 

The $6 million campaign spans television, digital, radio and print spots. It has been airing in the seven states surrounding Illinois and in 18 total markets.

The first ad, a 30-second spot with a soundtrack reminiscent of REO Speedwagon's 1978 single "Time for Me To Fly," features a cameo by the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, scenes of the Chicago River and Historic Route 66, Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield and Chestnut Mountain in Galena. 

REO Speedwagon was formed at the University of Illinois in 1967 and is set to play at the 2021 Illinois State Fair, where it has performed six times since 1987, according to state fair records. 

"Roll down the windows, turn up the radio and discover all that Illinois has to offer," a narrator says. 

At the core of the ad and the campaign is a push for travelers to experience Illinois by car.

"Recent surveys show that half of Americans plan to travel this summer, and half of them intend to drive," Pritzker said when he announced the campaign.

"So, whether you want to ease your way back into travel or are raring to go, taking the great American road trip is a great way to enjoy yourself and to stay safe," Pritzker said.

The American Automobile Association estimates that 34.4 million people will travel by car this Memorial Day weekend, with 1.7 million being from Illinois. The national forecast is up nearly 53% from last year, but is down 23% from 2019.

Increased demand to hit the road will likely mean "gas prices are going to be expensive no matter where you fill up," AAA spokesperson Jeanette McGee said in a statement.

Vaccination clinics to be provided at Illinois rest stops during Memorial Day weekend

Nationally, travelers can expect to see the most expensive Memorial Day weekend gas prices since 2014, according to AAA. In Illinois, the average price of gas as of Thursday was $3.26, or 22 cents over the national average.

Dollars spent at Illinois pumps in the next few days and as a result of the tourism campaign will likely be a boon for the state, which has a 38.7 cents per gallon motor fuel tax.

In 2020, the state saw revenues from the tax fall with less people traveling for business and for leisure during the height of the pandemic.

Things are looking up

Another part of the campaign's calculus is to recover some of the other economic losses shouldered by the tourism industry amid the pandemic. 

Before the virus, Illinois saw over 120 million visitors annually who together spent more than $40 billion in the state, according to Sylvia Garcia, acting director of the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Those numbers were “cut in half” as a result of the pandemic last year, Garcia said earlier this month. 

“(The) Time for Me to Drive campaign is not only a milestone in bringing tourism back for this summer, it's also part of our ongoing work towards a strong recovery for the tourism industry over the long term,” Garcia said.

The state actually saw increases in attendance at its 309 state parks — a collection of sites it hopes to promote through the campaign — throughout the pandemic. Some parks or portions of parks even closed on occasion because they had become too congested.

The increase carried over to related businesses too, including rental cabins and other outdoor-related experiences.

Despite the state's Department of Natural Resources closing its facilities in March 2020 to curb the spread of the virus, then reopening a select 60 sites May 1 and fully reopening May 29, a 6.23% increase in visitors was logged. 

According to IDNR spokesperson Rachel Torbert, state parks, recreation areas and historic sites recorded 28,451,056 visitors from June 2020 to December 2020.

The same seven-month period in 2019 saw 26,731,808 visitors. From Jan. 1 to April 30 this year, the IDNR has logged 6,175,900 visitors. 

"As you may have guessed, we’ve seen increased visitors at our state sites as many Illinoisans continue to look for ways to recreate with their families, which allow them to avoid crowds and traveling long distances," Torbert said. 

Some expect in-state and regional travel to be popular for some time.

“I’m hearing that ‘staycations’ may be a trend for the next 10 or 20 years,” said Wes Gibson, owner of Pine Manor estates, a collection of 15 luxury rental homes in Jackson County. “People like having a great place to go that is still close to home.”

RV dealer Bush said getting people outside for safe, experiences has been something they have enjoyed.

“People are saying they are hooked and that they wished they would have tried camping years ago,” he said.


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