Tourists gaze at their reflections in Chicago's Cloud Gate (the "Bean") in Millennium Park, 2010. Photo by J. Mark Souther

If Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel gets his way, when visitors peer into the silvery curvature of Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate, they will see the world. The mayor recently challenged Chicago tourism officials to bring 50 million tourists a year to his city by 2020, which would represent a 25 percent increase over the current figure. More critically, as reported in the Chicago Sun-Times, he wants Chicago to raise its profile by finding ways to attract a far larger share of international tourists than its current paltry 4.3 percent. With three recent additions, Chicago now maintains eight international tourism offices worldwide, still well short of several other major American cities. It even has its own official tourism theme song, although, as the Huffington Post notes, some think it might be the “worst tourism anthem ever.”

Eight hundred miles to the east, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also recently pegged a new goal of 55 million tourists annually by 2015. As in Chicago and many American cities, tourism is serious business in the Big Apple. As Craig’s New York Business reported, tourism is the city’s fifth largest industry and may have played a decisive role in blunting the impact of troubles on Wall Street. A central feature of the marketing campaign, as Crain’s reported in a separate article, involves using Disney’s Muppet characters to help brand New York as a safe and fun family destination.

The mayors’ campaigns may be seen alongside a new, concerted effort at the national level to maximize the potential reach of international tourism. The congressionally mandated initiative “Brand USA,” an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has launched the nation’s first unified tourism campaign by staking out a major web presence (www.discoveramerica.com) and commissioning the obligatory theme song, “Land of Dreams” by Rosanne Cash.

Emanuel and Bloomberg are in another sense direct descendants of what urban historian Jon C. Teaford called “messiah mayors” in the 1970s-80s – mayors like Boston’s Kevin White and Baltimore’s William Donald Schaefer who saw tourism as an important ingredient of reviving urban image. Yet White and Schaefer served at a time when cities were working mightily to overcome the inertia of negative perceptions forged in midcentury decline. Retooling a public market or transforming a working waterfront into a leisure spot – building a tourist infrastructure – represented a signal accomplishment at that time. “Tourist bubbles” appeared in concentrated downtown areas.

The new tourism mayors, by contrast, more fully embrace tourism as a critical mechanism in their cities’ growth engines.  The heavy investments of Emanuel’s predecessor Richard Daley and Bloomberg’s predecessor Rudy Guiliani in beefing up policing and supporting big projects like Millennium Park and Times Square, respectively, further reflected tourism as a municipal priority. With an impressive tourist infrastructure well in place, cities are taking the logical next step: concentrating on cashing in on their well-groomed image. If they succeed, the tourist hearts of each city will more clearly mirror the ethnic profusion for which both cities are famous.

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