Illinois banks on Obama buzz to boost tourism

By: AP
By: AP

CHICAGO (AP) -- Chicago's tourism Web site beckons visitors to "experience the city the Obamas enjoy." The Illinois Bureau of Tourism plans to launch a three-day getaway promotion featuring Barack Obama sites. And tour guides at the Old State Capitol in Springfield may get new scripts to stress two important speeches the president-elect made as a candidate.

It's all part of Illinois tourism officials' rush to capitalize on the Obama buzz.

A security perimeter surrounds the Obamas' block in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, but tourism office volunteer Catherine Williams still tries to get visitors on walking tours as close to the family home as the Secret Service will allow.

"They want to see the house, and, hopefully, they might get a glimpse of him," Williams said Thursday. "He's almost like a rock star."

Nearby, a restaurant has sold 3,000 T-shirts that read "Obama Eats Here," and a hand-lettered sign in the window of 57th Street Books congratulates "longtime customer" Obama, who has shopped there since 1986.

"They ask, 'What does the senator like to read?'" Jack Cella, of the cooperative that runs the bookstore, said of touring customers. "They buy copies of his book and say they wanted to buy it in the bookstore he shops in."

A household name outside Illinois for just a few years, Obama appears to be quickly edging out Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey or Al Capone for title of "most famous Chicagoan."

That's become particularly true for international visitors, said Laura Baginski, features editor for the weekly entertainment magazine Time Out Chicago, which has published a self-guided tour that includes the University of Chicago Law School, where Obama taught, and the Hyde Park Hair Salon & Barber Shop.

"I don't know if we're quite prepared for the attention we're going to get," Baginski said. "I think people are interested in seeing where he eats, seeing where he gets his hair cut."

Travel agencies from around the globe have been phoning for information, and the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau is in the thick of an Obama-focused Internet marketing campaign, said Mark Theis, agency's executive vice president.

"We completely changed our home page to congratulate Obama," Theis said.

Clicking on the site's new "Presidential Chicago" page gives visitors the skinny on restaurants, stores and other Obama hangouts, including U.S. Cellular Field, home of his beloved White Sox.

Three hours south, the state capital of Springfield isn't about to miss out on the celebration.

"It will be a big part of our marketing plan," said Tim Farley, executive director of Springfield's convention and visitors bureau. "We're scrambling to do that."

Obama's two campaign speeches at the Old State Capitol - in February 2007 to announce his presidential bid, and in August to introduce Joe Biden as his running mate - are just the beginning, Farley said. The future president spent nearly eight years in the Legislature, and parallels with Abraham Lincoln are strong.

And Farley plans to play on Obama's appeal to young people, because when it comes to choosing a vacation spot, "the youth, they are the decision-makers in a family."

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which runs the Old State Capitol, is pondering a commemorative marker, new scripts for tour guides and the possibility of recording oral histories of people who attended the Obama speeches.

The agency has autographed copies of the 2008 Obama and Biden speeches and is considering how to display them.

"We're not discounting any possibility," said agency spokesman David Blanchette. "Let's face it. The man's only been president-elect for two days."

Inspired by the glittering Chicago skyline seen on televisions worldwide during Obama's Election Day victory rally at Grant Park, special events coordinator Andrew Schorr says he's considering launching a driving tour "focused on Obama's impact on Chicago and the world."

"I don't know if people have seen Chicago lit up like that," said Schorr, president of In the Loop-Chicago. "My immediate thought was, 'Wow, we have great potential.'"

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Associated Press writer Rupa Shenoy contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

Chicago Greeter: http://www.chicagogreeter.com/

Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau: http://www.choosechicago.com

Old State Capitol: http://www.state.il.us/HPA/hs/old-capitol.htm

Illinois Bureau of Tourism: http://www.enjoyillinois.com/

Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau: http://www.visit-springfieldillinois.com/

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