With spring break just around the corner, tens of thousands of Chicagoland university students are looking forward to distancing themselves from the Windy City physically, mentally, and above all, meteorologically. This winter has been one for the record books, tallying more days with subzero temperatures than any year for the past three decades. To be fair, the harshness of a given winter doesn't seem to be a statistically significant predictor of the number of students fleeing the city for spring break—students leave in droves no matter what—but what's the point of enduring bitter cold if you can't brag about it? It's been really freaking cold.
Indeed, Chicagoland continues to be among the nation's biggest exporters of spring break tourists, with this year's deficit projected to be more than 282,000. This figure is mostly composed of high school and university students who will escape to tropical getaways, but it also counts families with young children who are simply visiting grandma's house in Iowa while school is out of session.
How bad is the problem? Tourism experts generally measure the health of a location's tourism on a scale called the Patterly index, which, for a given location and time period, is the ratio of two numbers: the number of nonresidents (tourists) visiting that location and the number of residents who are away visiting other places as tourists. This ratio is used as a proxy for determining whether funds are, on balance, flowing into or out of a city as a result of tourism. A Patterly score of 1 would indicate that a city receives as many tourists as it generates, and therefore the magnitude of wealth gained by the city is comparable to the wealth spent by its residents abroad. Some vacation hotspots, such as Hawaii, can attain Patterly scores of over 100 by attracting lots of vacationers while not producing many tourists themselves. Even Pyongyang, North Korea, maintains a Patterly score near 38, mostly because its residents travel abroad so infrequently. In contrast, Chicago's Patterly score hovers around 0.6, and is projected to dip to 0.3 during spring break. This implies that Chicago's famously busy airports are primarily serving to take money out of the city, not bring it in. In fact, the only times when Chicago's Patterly score rises above 1 are during Lollapalooza and the Christmas holiday.
So what's to be done? The construction of a massive geodesic dome over Chicagoland and Lake Michigan would provide summer-like weather all year round. This would provide a boost in tourism beyond that of the geodesic structure itself, which would be considerable and lasting if Walt Disney World's Epcot Center is any indication. But until funding for such a technically ambitious (yet fiscally prudent) project has been secured, Chicago's best bet is to increase the number of Lollapaloozas and Christmases.