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What is the societal cost of Chicago's tourism boom?

Zach Long
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Zach Long
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This morning, Mayor Emanuel and Choose Chicago proudly announced that the city attracted an estimated 50.2 million visitors in 2014. The number represents a 3.5% increase over 2013, and is credited with injecting billions of dollars into the local economy. On its face, it's great news for local businesses and workers: What could possibly be the downside of increased revenue and new job creation?

The release touts the number of jobs within the tourism and hospitality industry that have been created within the last four years. The city’s press release pegs that number at 9,800 jobs, spread throughout hotels, conventions centers and more specialized sectors of the hospitality industry. What the release doesn't mention is that the majority of these new jobs are service industry positions—a sector of the workforce that is notoriously overworked and underpaid. These are the folks that are making an hourly wage (oftentimes less if they're a tipped worker, which many are) which, even in the face of plans to raise the minimum wage, makes it difficult for these individuals to live and work within the city.

2015 is poised to be a banner year for tourism and hospitality, as major conventions and trade shows take up residence in the city and new hotels open to house visitors. Within the next year, Chicago will host the inaugural Microsoft Ignite conference, the Automechanika international automotive trade show, the return of the James Beard Foundation Awards and the NFL Draft. Soon, the recently opened Virgin Hotel will be joined by the Chicago Athletic Association, the Lowes Hotel, the Freehand and a new Kimpton Hotel. Chicago's tourism industry is building with increasing speed and intensity, racing to exceed Mayor Emanuel's goal of 55 million annual visitors by 2020.

As the conversation surrounding the mayoral elections increasingly focuses on how Chicago can evenly distribute its wealth and resources while offering a living wage to all members of its workforce, Emanuel's grand plans for increasing tourism are troubling. For all the profits that the burgeoning industry creates, tourism dollars don't seem to trickle down to the housekeeping staffs, maintenance teams and convention center workers who take care of visitors while they're in town. Like many other service industries, tourism is built on the backs of workers making low wages and struggling to stay afloat. There's no denying the benefits of a robust influx of tourists, but the societal costs shouldn't be ignored.

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