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Illinois towns on Route 66 vie for foreign tourists

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PONTIAC, Ill. — The honeymooners from Spain spoke limited English, but that didn't stop Mayor Bob Russell from giving them a hearty welcome to his community.

"How long have you been here?" Russell asked, posing for a snapshot with the newlyweds by a giant Route 66 mural before moving on to greet a busload of French tourists.

"There are visitors on the street all day long," he said, smiling. "This has brought new life to our community."

While many small towns across the country may be struggling to keep their downtowns afloat, Pontiac and a string of other Illinois communities scattered along the famed Route 66 are enjoying newfound popularity as foreign tourists roll in by rental car, motorcycle and bus.

The visitors come from Armenia and Ukraine with cameras around their necks, road maps in hand and money in their pockets. They tell locals they heard about the highway on international travel programs and read about it in guide books. Some catch an all-night flight to Chicago, skipping the downtown attractions to head out on the "Mother Road."

"In Europe, it's very much the epic American road trip," said Sonny Dudes, a 31-year-old resident of the United Kingdom who pulled a rental car up to a visitor center housed in a restored Texaco gas station in Dwight on a recent afternoon. "It's the novelty of a bygone era."

And the home-grown tourism efforts are getting results. Downtown shops in Pontiac, for example, report an 8 percent increase in business over last year. The number of visitors has grown from 6,900 in 2008 to more than 15,000 in 2011 with representation from 84 countries, according to tourism officials.

The foreign interest gratifies boosters such as John Weiss, a resident of nearby Custer Park who has spent 15 years, he said, encouraging Route 66 communities to play up their ties to the road for their own survival. Weiss says he has sold more than 10,000 copies of his book, "Traveling the New, Historic Route 66 of Illinois," often out of the trunk of his car.

"It's so rewarding," he said. "They'll take pictures of our cornfields and our soybeans. They spend thousands of dollars just to come here — it's their dream."

Anyone familiar with the old Bobby Troup song knows that people get their kicks on Route 66, which ran 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. The roadway celebrates the 85th anniversary of being named on Nov. 11.

The storied highway began as 300 miles of uninterrupted paved road in Illinois in 1926. By the early 1930s, the entire distance was paved, prompting business owners along its path to create kitschy gimmicks — giant statues, Indian Trading Posts and neon signs — to entice drivers to stop and spend money, Weiss said.

The construction of Interstate 55 in Illinois replaced the need for Route 66, and in 1977, the roadway was taken off official state maps. Communities began losing touch with its history. Former attractions turned into storage buildings. Once bustling gas stations fell into disrepair.

Even so, Route 66 consistently drew throngs of visitors each year, and it remains one of the state's top tourist attractions, said Jan Kostner, state travel director for Illinois' office of tourism.

Recognizing the untapped market, Joliet tourism officials in 2006 spent $150,000 in state grant money and city funds to create attractions for travelers. They added furniture from the 1950s and 60s and Blues Brothers' statues to the Visitor's Center at the Joliet Area Historical Museum. A neon sign went up on the Rich & Creamy Ice cream parlor along the route's path.

Joliet leaders posted Route 66 signs around the community, printed maps and renovated a parking lot near the Joliet Correctional Center — made famous in the "Blues Brothers" movie — where tourists often stopped to take pictures.

By October 2006, leaders from 12 communities from Joliet to Towanda agreed to do whatever they could — spruce up paint, add audio narration, post new signs — to promote Route 66 attractions. Clustered along 90 miles of the highway, the towns coined a name designed to promote their offerings collectively: "The Red Carpet Corridor."

Pontiac, which already housed the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum, took its promise seriously. It added what locals claim to be the world's largest Route 66 mural for photo opportunities and opened three new downtown museums. Tourism officials painted colored footprints on sidewalks to lead non-English speaking visitors from one to attraction to another, said Ellie Alexander, Pontiac's tourism director.

At the Polka Dot Drive-In in Braidwood, signatures from international travelers fill up multiple guest books kept under the cash register.

Philippe Eli, 52, was one of those visitors, traveling with 13 other French tourists on Route 66 from California to Chicago by bus. While perusing souvenirs at the gift shop in Pontiac, he was asked what inspired him to choose a Route 66 trip.

His answers came as short, choppy examples at first.

"John Wayne."

"Grapes of Wrath."

"Henry Fonda."

And then Eli summed it up in one sentence, spoken in perfect English.

"We love America more than you think," he said.