Perhaps you have never heard of Baku, the capital city of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Or of Samarkand, an ancient Mongol capital in Central Asia.
But these are cities we must learn more about if Mayor Rahm Emanuel is to reach his goal of making Chicago one of the top five destinations for foreign visitors by 2020.
Today, the mayor announced the formation of a new tourist-trapping agency, combining the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture and the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau.
“Our ultimate goal is to make Chicago the premier destination for domestic and international business and leisure travelers,” said CC&TB President Don Welsh, who will head the agency. “Today’s decision will help the City more cost effectively advance and achieve this vision.”
Overall, the city wants to increase the number of annual visitors from 40 million to 50 million, which would bring in an additional $3.6 billion in revenue.
Currently, Chicago is tied with Boston for ninth on the list of most popular U.S. destinations for foreigners. The top five are New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando and San Francisco. They all have a geographic advantage Chicago lacks: they’re at the edge of America, in states on an ocean. The only other landlocked city in the entire Top 10 is Las Vegas. San Francisco gets 1.6 million foreign visitors a year, compared to our 700,000. So, to crack the Top 5, we’ll have to more than double our attractiveness to the rest of the world.
However, Chicago has an advantage even New York and L.A. lack: we have the world’s second-largest airport. O’Hare is our link to the world beyond our borders. If we want more foreigners, we’re going to have to provide the flights to bring them here.
That’s where Baku and Samarkand come in. It is possible to book a flight to New York from both cities. In fact, an Azerbaijani can fly directly from Baku to New York, for less than $1000. I don’t have figures on how many Azerbaijanis visit New York each year, versus how many visit Chicago, but I’ll bet New York wins!
I am certain, however, that many Azerbaijanis would like to eat at Ronny’s Original Steakhouse, or have their photograph taken under The Bean. But if New York is as far as they can get on one $900 ticket, that’s as far as they’ll go.
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