CHICAGO (WLS) -- Illinois set another record for tourism before the COVID-19 pandemic essentially shut down normal life around the world, state officials said, and the industry believes it can bounce back.
The Illinois Office of Tourism Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity announced Friday that the state welcomed 120 million visitors in 2019. That was the ninth consecutive year that Illinois saw tourism growth.
The U.S. Travel Association estimates that tourists spent $43.1 billion in Illinois last year. That was a 3% increase over the prior year.
The tourism office said the money directly supported 344,100 jobs, up 1,800 from 2018. It generated $2.5 billion in state sales tax revenue, nearly 8% over a year earlier.
But COVID-19 has devastated the tourism industry, shuttered schools, businesses and required people to stay at home for periods.
In Chicago there was a tourist here and there, at the Bean, Navy Pier and Museum Campus. But the pandemic has left the city's tourism industry limping along, trying to survive.
"When you look at tourism and hospitality, we were the first industry affected by this and the last to recover," said Michael Jacobson, Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association.
In order to recover, hotels and airlines are counting on what they say is pent up demand from people tired of staying at home. While business travel was the industry's bread and butter, the focus is shifting to regular recreational travelers.
"We are really focused on Wisconsin, Indiana and even suburban Chicago to come to downtown and have a staycation," Jacobsen said. "That is really our potential in the future."
While many are choosing to drive to their destinations, the airline industry said giving travelers the confidence to get back on a plane is key to survival. During a tourism discussion with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, United Airline said cleanliness has been the company's top priority.
"Air travel or staying in a hotel in those areas being actually quite safe practices, the challenge is around the social practices around those destinations," said Luc Bondar, United Airlines Mileage Plus president.
To survive in the short term and post-COVID, the hotel and airline industries said they could use help from the federal government. United said a federal mask mandate would help the traveling industry get back on its feet, while hotels said they need financial help to survive during the next few months.
"We need to make our property tax payments, loan payments so we don't get foreclosed on," Jacobsen said. "One in four hotels nationwide is default on loans right now."
While Chicago hotels saw slightly bumps in occupancy in the past few weeks, recent looting has set them back. With some help, leaders in travel and tourism say the industry will rebound.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.