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I-Rural: Helping communities meet increased demand for rural tourism

Grafton River Road

URBANA, Ill. – Tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry in Illinois. Now, rural Illinois communities are getting help to reimagine the potential for tourism growth and sustainability.

Pandemic restrictions generated renewed interest in rural outdoor activities. University of Illinois Extension, in collaboration with U of I Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism, is helping rural communities evaluate their opportunities and challenges to create new strategies for capturing a piece of the growing tourism industry.

Tourism supported more than 340,000 jobs in Illinois in 2018, according to the Illinois Governor’s Conference on Travel and Tourism. More than 117 million travelers visited Illinois, spending $41.7 billion and generating $3 billion in state and local tax revenue.

“Tourism can be an engine of economic growth for rural communities,” says Sharon Zou, assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism. “By retaining the tourists’ dollars and attracting more people to rural communities, the tourism industry can serve as a catalyst for economic empowerment, cultural understanding, and environmental conservation, if it’s done right.”

The pandemic accelerated the public’s interest in rural destinations.

“Many people traveled to rural destinations with low population densities during the pandemic, allowing communities to reimagine their potential for tourism development,” Zou says.

The I-Rural project, funded by Extension and Illinois’ Office of the Provost Investment for Growth Program, is developing a model that will guide rural tourism development across the state. The four river-based communities of Grafton, Havana, Savanna, and Galena are piloting the project.

Relying on Extension’s network of community connections, the I-Rural partnership team met with local officials, business owners, and residents in the four pilot communities, says Joelle Soulard, Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism assistant professor. Each community has identified the challenges and opportunities it faces to grow tourism revenue. Next, the researchers hope to identify tourists’ motivations and constraints.

“It is important to understand how communities talk about themselves in order to empower the community for tourism development,” Zou says, to ensure the pride of the communities is reflected in the marketing.

“We encourage communities to adopt a ‘bigger-pie’ mindset, working together as a team to reach shared goals,” Soulard says. Instead of thinking of other businesses as competitors, a bigger-pie mindset believes that if more options are available, people are more likely to come to communities.

“They understand they have a shared destiny; they are in it together,” Soulard says. “The tide is rising, so everyone is benefiting from it.”

When communities meet regularly, this bigger-pie mindset thinking happens more frequently, Zou adds.

First-year impact

Jennifer Russell, Extension community and economic development educator, serves communities and businesses in western Illinois.

“Grafton has always been doing tourism work to some degree, but this opportunity gave them a chance to come together, get reenergized, and prioritize their next projects,” says Russell. “The area combines a natural beauty with a strong entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic.”

The community has shown its ability to rally and help one another during challenging times. Following the I-Rural listening session, the Grafton team updated its streetscape plan and applied for grant funding, Russell says.

Community leaders in Grafton acknowledged the collective benefit of organizing more annual events and initiating new collaborations among businesses and parks to develop family-friendly events and festivals. The group recognized the need to create more digital marketing and host grant-writing workshops, as well as develop one unified message for the community. They also identified a need to diversify dining options, adding more kid-friendly food and themed items, such as “bluff bites” and “Mississippi Mud fudge.”

In Havana, leaders recognize the value of their natural resources, as well as Native American history and historical architecture of the region. As it begins renewed tourism efforts, the community is moving forward with signage and marketing materials highlighting the area’s unique tourist attractions while it applies for grants.

In the second year of the grant, the I-Rural team will help develop marketing resources based on the researchers' findings which will be made available through Extension to all Illinois communities.

“This work is going to form a smorgasbord, if you will, of tactics and strategies which will be available for folks across the state to choose from and learn from without having to do the work themselves,” says Mike Delany, Extension community and economic development educator.

The importance of Extension networks in communities

Extension’s longstanding relationships with the people who live and work in Illinois communities were credited for the rapid ability to turn the campus researchers’ work into relevant, applicable, and actionable plans to improve the tourism opportunities in these rural communities.

“Extension assists in community leadership and economic capacity building that benefits communities of all sizes,” says Shelly Nickols-Richardson, associate dean and director of Illinois Extension.

“It usually takes researchers years to build rapport and trust in communities to get quality data, but by collaborating with Extension, we were able to make great strides in one year,” Zou says. “This shows how tightly interlinked Extension professionals are with the people in their communities.”

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities

ABOUT EXTENSION COLLABORATION GRANTS: This project is funded by an Extension Collaboration Grant. First launched in 2018, grants are part of an ongoing effort to connect campus-based researchers and University of Illinois Extension field staff to do applied research projects that will improve the quality of life of Illinois residents. The grants focus on addressing critical issues in food, economy, environment, community, and health. Illinois Extension and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences provided 17 grants in the current round of funding with financial support from University of Illinois’ Office of the Provost Investment for Growth Program.

SOURCE: Sharon Zou, Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism Assistant Professor
SOURCE: Joelle Soulard, Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism Assistant Professor
SOURCE: Jennifer Russell, Extension Community and Economic Development Educator

WRITER: Judy Mae Bingman, Extension Marketing and Communication Manager