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Philly tourism has grown more than 50 percent since 1997

After 20 years, Visit Philadelphia aims to convince people to live and work in Philly

Marking its 20th Anniversary, one of the city’s biggest cheerleaders Visit Philadelphia has announced a $2 million grant from Pew Charitable Trusts to expand its promotion of the original city of Philadelphia over the next two years.

The specific area includes the Delaware River waterfront, Old City, Society Hill, and Independence National Historical Park—all already popular tourist sites in Philadelphia. But Visit Philadelphia CEO Meryl Levitz says she hopes the funds will be used to further encourage visitors that there’s more to Philly besides the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

It’s been two decades since Visit Philadelphia launched under the name Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation as a three-year experiment aimed at turning the city into more than just a stopover between New York and Washington. Last year, a record 41 million people visited the city—a 54 percent increase over 1997.

Last year alone, all of those visits had a $10.5 billion economic impact on Philadelphia.

Yet despite the boost in tourism and overnight stays, Levitz and her team recognizes that the future of the organization involves expanding its reach to not just visitors, but to locals, too.

The elephant in the room is that while more millennials and baby boomers alike are working and living in Philadelphia, the former eventually leaves the city to raise children in the suburbs due to the Philly's struggling public schools system.

A recent Center City District report found that despite the uptick in millennial residents over the years, about a third of those who moved into Center City in 2000 have since moved from the area. That accounts for about 7,000 millennials moving out of the city each year.

Another survey found that while millennials are satisfied with living in Philadelphia overall, they gave the city a glaring F when it came to public schools.

A. Bruce Crawley, current president of Millennium 3 Management and founding member of Visit Philadelphia, says he’s talked to Levitz about broadening the organization’s vision to address the education issue.

"There’s been no concerted effort, in a branded way, for this problem" of the city’s public schools system, Crawley said. "But we need to take into account infrastructure, transportation, and everything else first" to focus on this issue.

Developer Carl Dranoff, whose family lived in Center City but kids went to school in the suburbs, claims he and other real estate professionals have been working with public schools, "putting in money and ideas" to bring the city’s public "schools into the 21st century."

Better schools, of course, benefits both developers and homeowners, says Dranoff. "We know that a good schools system could result in a 20 to 30 percent increase in real estate values."

While improving the city’s public schools system is under the city's purview versus a tourism bureau's, Levitz acknowledges that the two go hand in hand.

Visit Philadelphia's plans for the next two years include expanding the visitor experience in the original historic district, increasing its already robust social media presence, and boosting advertising in the Mid-Atlantic region and in the media.

"One thing we’ve found, is that what appeals to visitors also appeals to people who live here," she says. "The traveler has changed—they don't want to sight-see. They want to sight-do."