Reporting Mai Martinez
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CHICAGO (CBS) – Move over San Francisco and watch out New York — Chicago is now the second best city in the U.S. and Canada, according to Travel+Leisure magazine.
It was a good piece of news to kick off the official launch of the city’s new tourism organization, “Choose Chicago,” but as CBS 2′s Mai Martinez reports, the recognition comes at a time when Chicago is also capturing national attention for a much more ominous distinction.
Chicago has garnered national headlines as it has seen a major spike in homicides this year, with at least 250 through the end of June – up 36 percent compared to the same time period this year.
Since Tuesday alone, there have been at least seven fatal shootings, and 41 non-fatal shootings in the city.
But city leaders are hoping the world will see a safe, tourist-friendly destination being touted by “Choose Chicago,” which combines the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau and the tourism portion of Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture.
It will be up to “Choose Chicago” to attract more visitors to the city, even as violence threatens to damage the city’s national image.
Asked what really sells Chicago to potential tourists Choose Chicago President and CEO Don Welsh said, “You know, it’s funny, we are a city of riches.”
He said many big cities have one or two major attractions that bring in tourists, but Chicago has a lot more.
“I think, in the summertime, clearly … Millennium Park is a big, big driver of what we do. Navy Pier continues to be a big driver,” he said. “I think the more and more we see about our great restaurants, and our retail, clearly our culinary scene here in the city – people are actually coming here from around the world now to experience our dining scene here.”
He also pointed to Lake Michigan, the lakefront trails, the downtown Theater District, the Taste of Chicago, and Lollapalooza as big draws for Chicago.
But Welsh acknowledged there’s a perception problem when it comes to violence in Chicago, and safety questions are now popping up among potential visitors.
“I think we’re trying to aggressively and prudently deal with this issue, but our hope is that it quickly comes to an end, as everybody in Chicago is,” he said. “I think, for the most part, people realize it’s not taking place in downtown Chicago. There is a tremendous number of police officers on the street. I think there is always a feeling of safety and security here.”
Tourists who talked to CBS 2 on Friday agreed.
Wisconsin resident Tom Hauterbrook said, “I notice crime. Everywhere, though, crime and murder is up. That’s par for the economy, too, so it didn’t affect me at all.”
Christine Roebuck, visiting from Canada, said, “We know there’s crime everywhere. I mean, even in Canada, we have our issues.”
Karen Salamone, from Cleveland, said she wasn’t surprised to hear about Chicago’s recent problems with violence, and it didn’t deter her from making a trip to the city.
“It’s very hot. I think people have tempers, and it’s just what’s happening right now,” she said.
Tourists who were in Chicago on Friday said, overall, the good far outweighs the bad when it comes to Chicago.
Readers of Travel+Leisure agree, ranking Chicago as the second best city in the U.S. and Canada; and its Waldorf Astoria as the #1 large city hotel in the U.S.
General manager Rick Evanich said, “There’s great luxury hotels in this market, and it’s great to be on top.”
Welsh said, “It’s the rightful recognition that Chicago deserves.”
According to Choose Chicago, more than 42 million people visted Chicago last year, and tourism accounts for 125,00 jobs and $600 million in tax revenue.
Welsh said, if there’s not a slowdown in the city’s violence, it could become more difficult to sell Chicago as a tourist destination, but right now it’s not a problem for the tourism office.