Travelers spent slightly more last year in the four-county Blackhawk Waterways region, and counties received more money from taxes attributed to travel spending.
The county numbers are included in the annual economic impact report recently released by the Illinois Office of Tourism.
Whiteside, Lee, Ogle and Carroll counties collectively brought in $168.41 million in travel-related revenue in 2016, only a 0.84 percent increase from the previous year.
The region brought in $4.08 million in local tax dollars generated by tourism, a 6.25 percent increase from 2015.
Travel spending, for the purposes of this report, includes dollars from lodging, food, transportation, retail, recreation and entertainment.
Ogle County again led the way, posting $76.91 million in tourism-related spending. The total, however, reflected a less than 1 percent increase. Carroll County booked $22.91 million, a 5 percent improvement over the previous year.
Lee County brought in $31.9 million, which was exactly where it was a year earlier. Whiteside County's $37.10 million was about 1 percent lower than the spending in 2015.
Carroll County also led the pack for its improvement in other economic indicators the state charts for tourism. Carroll at least doubled the other three counties in the areas of local tax receipts, state taxes, job creation and payroll when comparing the year-over-year increases.
Carroll County's improved numbers were in part attributed to the presence of the Thomson prison.
Diane Bausman, executive director of Blackhawk Waterways Convention and Visitors Bureau, said leisure travel continues to be the region's calling card thanks to a wealth of natural attractions.
"We have the Mississippi and Rock rivers, the Hennepin Canal, 10 state parks and other nature areas that attract the traveler looking for an easy 1- to 3-day getaway," Bausman said.
Bausman said the region should continue to benefit from an increased interest in outdoor pursuits.
"The marked increase in travelers' interest in outdoor sports such as canoeing, kayaking, hiking and birding, coupled with lower gas prices, has helped our area and should continue to help us in the future," Bausman said.
Bausman said Ogle County continues to do a good job of promoting its natural resources as well as tourist draws such as the Black Hawk Statue in Lowden State Park near Oregon and the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour.
"Ogle County continues to be a major player, and Oregon, in particular, has established itself as a tourism destination," Bausman said. "It also helps that Rochelle has several big hotels."
Heads in beds is a key measurement that goes a long way to separate the tourism haves from the have-nots. Lodging, which includes bed and breakfasts and vacation rentals, brings local hotel/motel tax money that must be spent to boost tourism.
For towns like Sterling, which has no hotels, it is difficult to find money for promotions. In Rock Falls, the lodging tax brings in anywhere from $160,000 to $200,000 a year, allowing the city to have a tourism office and director.
The four counties together brought in $719,000 in hotel/motel tax money, a 7.75 percent increase from the previous year.
The lodging industry is also a job generator, as well as a lure for economic development. New hotels often help to bring restaurants and retailers to an area.
Lodging also plays a big role in the allocation of funds for tourism and how special events are promoted.
"Heads in beds is a big piece of getting grant money, and with special events, the ones you promote most are the ones you think can draw people from outside a 50-mile radius," Bausman said.
Rock Falls Tourism is working on several projects with a regional scope, including the Northwest Illinois Film Office. Regardless of who has the hotels, tourism is a regional game.
Kris Noble, executive director at Sauk Valley Area Chamber of Commerce, said rural communities are in danger of dying if they don’t pull together regionally.
“Cross-promoting is so important – we want people to play here and spend money here, and we don’t care which side of the river they’re on,” Noble said.
Bausman said part of the disparity between the counties could be attributed to tougher comparisons for Lee and Whiteside to hit from the previous year.
"Lee and Whiteside had been up considerably the year before, so it was harder for them to see a larger percentage increase from that point," Bausman said.
Blackhawk Waterways does promotional work for the entire region. A huge emphasis has been put on continuing to improve the website and making it easier to get tourism information to phones.
"We're constantly adding new imagery, videos and even drone videos," Bausman said. "We have to attract people to our site and remember that a majority of them are coming via phone."
While heritage is a big tourism draw, the millenials are looking for different things to do when they get there. Bausman said live music, brewery and winery tours are events that can boost future tourism numbers.
2016 TOURISM STATS
The following is a summary of the economic impact of tourism in the four-county Blackhawk Waterways region in 2016, and how it compares to 2015 (numbers are in millions):
Travel spending: $22.91M (+5%)
Payroll: $3.08M (+9.9%)
Employment: $0.11M (+6.6%)
State tax receipts: $1.43M (+7.4%)
Local tax receipts: $1.10M (+9.8%)
Travel spending: $31.49M (0%)
Payroll: $6.82M (+4.7%)
Employment: $0.24M (+1.5%)
State tax receipts: $1.61M (+2.3%)
Local tax receipts: $0.63M (+4.6%)
Travel spending: $76.91M (+0.9%)
Payroll: $12.37M (+5.6%)
Employment: $0.53M (+2.4%)
State tax receipts: $4.96M (+3.1%)
Local tax receipts: $1.48M (+5.5%)
Travel spending: $37.10M (-0.9%)
Payroll: $6.97M (+3.8%)
Employment: $0.25M (+0.6%)
State tax receipts: $2.14M (+1.4%)
Local tax receipts: $0.87M (+3.7%)