If you noticed more than the usual number of tourists in 2016, that’s because a record number of people visited Chicago for work or play last year. The city and Choose Chicago announced on Thursday that 54.1 million people travelled to Chicago in 2016—a 2.9 percent increase over the prior year.
Overall, the additional 1.5 million visitors was a boon for Chicago’s tourism industry. Tourism in 2016 supported approximately 145,137 jobs (up 3.3 percent) and contributed $15 billion in direct tourism spending, according to the city.
During a press conference announcing the milestone, city officials cited a host of reasons why more people seem to be choosing Chicago as their business or vacation destination. Among the draws are a slew of cultural and recreational offerings. “Chicago is buzzing with free events and activities,” said Mark Kelly, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “This is one of the greatest cultural destinations in the world, and that’s why people come here.”
The boost in tourism isn’t just a badge of honor for the city, however. Mayor Rahm Emanuel said more visitors means greater economic activity, greater job growth and greater opportunity for the city of Chicago. “We have seen record increases in jobs and investment from our tourism industry, which is creating economic opportunities that reach every neighborhood in the city of Chicago.”
Despite the record-setting year, the mayor said the city will continue efforts to grow tourism. He added that the Chicago still has a lot of work to do if it wants to meet a goal set by his administration of 55 million visitor by 2020. David Whitaker, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, said those efforts include building Chicago's reputation internationally as a travel destination, as well as a great place for major business meetings and conventions.
The announcement comes as the city continues efforts to combat its soaring murder rate. In 2016, Chicago recorded 762 homicides—more than New York City and Los Angeles combined. When asked how ongoing violence in Chicago meshes with news of growing tourism, Emanuel didn’t mince words. “It’s horrific... but there’s more to the city than those horrific figures.”
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