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Route 66, Midwest culture charm international tourists, study finds

Pontiac Illinois Route 66
Photo courtesy of Bruce Wicks

The culture of Historic Route 66 and Midwesterners intrigue Australians, Europeans and other international tourists particularly, according to a new study of tourism along the 2,400-mile route that connects Chicago to Los Angeles.

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10/21/2013 | Sharita Forrest, News Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Baby Boomers and nostalgia buffs from Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom are getting their kicks on Historic Route 66 in Illinois, a new study of tourism related to the road indicates.

Joy Huang
Joy Huang, a professor of recreation, sport and tourism, led the study that focused on understanding the international market of Route 66. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

International visitors view the iconic highway – which was once called “the Mother Road” and “the Main Street of America” – as a portal to the nation’s cultural heritage and an opportunity to connect with the people that they believe personify typical Americans – the denizens of small towns and family farms in the heartland, said Zhuowei “Joy” Huang, a professor of recreation, sport and tourism at the University of Illinois.

“When Europeans travel on Route 66, most of their feedback is that it’s a very different experience from the big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., which can all seem very much alike,” Huang said. “Route 66 reveals the inner beauty of the U.S. Midwesterners are friendly, easygoing and enthusiastic. They’re proud to tell you what they have in their community and are willing to share their heritage, their history and their stories. A lot of tourists enjoy that.”

Tourism officials at the state and local levels in Illinois are very interested in learning about and courting Route 66 travelers, especially international tourists, and initiated the study to better understand the market segment, Huang said.

Huang and study co-author Bruce Wicks, an emeritus professor in the department, surveyed more than 900 tourists – including 597 international travelers – who visited the city of Pontiac, Ill., between May and October 2012. Pontiac was selected to be the location of data collection because it has been regarded as one significant stop on the Route 66 trip for international tourists in recent years.

Travelers were surveyed at multiple sites in Pontiac, which was selected for the research because it is experiencing an uptick in its Route 66 tourism. Among other attractions, Pontiac is home to a museum and a hall of fame associated with the roadway that feature thousands of pieces of Route 66 memorabilia.

Promotional campaigns about the charms of Illinois’ Route 66 culture seem to have been successful in enticing Europeans to venture west. Europeans comprised the majority – more than 72 percent – of the international visitors surveyed in Pontiac. Most were from the United Kingdom and Germany along with Australia. However, substantial numbers of travelers also hailed from Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

International tourists “are very enthusiastic and spend many days on the road,” often staying several days in Chicago before following Route 66 to particular towns and attractions or traveling it all the way to California, Huang said.

“They are very interested in the culture of Route 66 communities. They often have very specific itineraries, travel guides such as Lonely Planet and maps to all these old communities so they can see where events happened years ago,” Huang said.

Domestic travelers from Illinois and other Midwestern states, especially people age 55 and older, represent another fertile market that tourism officials would like to cultivate. More than 27 percent of the domestic tourists surveyed in Pontiac were from Illinois, followed by Michigan (10 percent) and California (8 percent), with nearly equal numbers from Indiana and Ohio.

“Lots of Baby Boomers travel on Route 66,” Huang said. “We found that people over age 55 represent about 80 percent of the domestic travelers on Route 66.”

About 76 percent of the domestic tourists and 80 percent of the international travelers interviewed indicated that Route 66 was the focal point of their trip to Illinois.

While most international travelers said that they were on their first or second Route 66 experience (84 percent and 10 percent, respectively), 1.7 percent reported that their current trip was their 10th or subsequent visit.

An even greater percentage of domestic travelers – 6 percent – indicated that they were on their ninth or subsequent Route 66 excursion.

Among domestic travelers and international tourists who were interviewed in Pontiac, Springfield was cited most frequently as the Route 66 city that they had visited or planned to visit in Illinois. Chicago came in second among international visitors, followed by St. Louis, Joliet and Dwight.

Among domestic travelers, the town of Dwight was the second most popular Illinois destination, followed by Joliet, Bloomington and Chicago.

Route 66 was the primary east-west thoroughfare in the U.S. transit system for decades, winding more than 2,400 miles across eight states and three time zones, connecting Chicago to Los Angeles, and later to Santa Monica, Calif.

Beginning in the 1950s, U.S. Route 66 was gradually replaced by the interstate highway system and was decommissioned as a federal highway in 1985.

The Land of Lincoln Regional Tourism Office co-sponsored the study with the city of Pontiac, the Pontiac Tourism Bureau and the university.

The department of recreation, sport and tourism is a unit in the College of Applied Health Sciences.

Editor's note: To contact Joy Huang, call 217-244-9716; email joyhuang@illinois.edu

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