Chicago hosted a near-record 46.2 million visitors last year, with growth in overnight leisure travel driving the city back to pre-recession levels.
The total is a 6.1 percent increase over 2011, and brings the city close to its 2007 record of 46.3 million visitors, according to data to be unveiled Tuesday by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Choose Chicago, the nonprofit that sells the city as a travel destination.
The city hosted nearly 18 million overnight vacationers, up 10.2 percent from 2011. Day trips by leisure travelers rose as well, by 4 percent, to 16.1 million, said Don Welsh, president and CEO of Choose Chicago.
On the business travel side, the city drew 7.2 million overnight visitors, up 6.7 percent from 2011. But day trips, which have been on the decline since the recession, continued to slip, to 3.7 million from 3.8 million in 2011, according to the data prepared for the city by D.K. Shifflet & Associates Ltd.
“The good news is that overnight business and leisure are up,” Welsh said, “and this translates into new taxes and new jobs.”
Emanuel said, in a statement, that the data indicate the city “is well on its way to meeting and exceeding my goal of 50 million annual visitors by 2020.” He also wants the city to be among the top five U.S. destinations for overseas visitors, up from No. 10 in 2011.
The international visitor count rose 3.2 percent, to 1.24 million in 2012, according to preliminary data.
Chicago’s hotel industry began heavily promoting weekend and leisure travel five to seven years ago, when the recession dampened business travel as well as the increasingly competitive convention business, said hotel consultant Ted Mandigo, who is based in Elmhurst.
Choose Chicago’s advertising campaigns in Midwest markets have helped as well, as have city special events, he said.
The leisure side of the hotel business is growing at a 6 to 7 percent annual clip, while individual business travel is growing at 2 to 2.5 percent and convention travel at 2.5 percent, he estimates.
In Chicago, “hotel occupancy rates now are higher on Saturday than midweek,” he said.
Downtown Chicago hotels saw an occupancy rate of 75.2 percent in 2012, up from 72.2 percent in 2011, according to Choose Chicago.
The city saw some pick-up in its convention business last year, according to data from the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the state-city agency that owns the McCormick Place convention center.
Trade shows drew 882,609 visitors, up from 768,685 in 2011. When meetings and public events are added in, McCormick Place drew 2.2 million visitors, up from 2.05 million the prior year, but still significantly below the 3 million seen in 2003.
The easing of labor rules at McCormick Place led to a stabilization of the city’s business, Welsh said, and now Choose Chicago is focused intensely on booking new business. The city will make some major announcements within the next two to three months, he said.
The rebound in the city’s tourism business, together with an increase in the city’s hotel tax, boosted city hotel tax receipts by $26.1 million, to $100.8 million.
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