2 different tales of Tennessee tourism during COVID-19

Special Reports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – 2019 was unlike anything Tennessee’s tourism industry had ever experienced.

Mark Ezell, Commissioner of Tourist Development for Tennessee explained, “Almost two-billion dollars was brought in last year on state and local tax revenues. We beat the national average in travel expenditures by 60%.” 

Record-setting numbers became the trend, and 2020 was poised to be no different.

“In February our Tennessee songwriter’s week was four times bigger than ever,” said Ezell. 

Only a few weeks later, COVID-19 hit hard and the hospitality industry was the first to fall as tens of thousands of Tennesseans lost their jobs quickly. 

“We really went from feast to famine as an industry,” said Ezell. 

Thankfully for Tennessee, just as the stars on our flag represent inside a circle of eternal unity, the three unique sections of our state worked together to offset the loss in certain areas.

“Destination analysts just had Tennessee as the most visited state in the U.S. this summer,” explains Ezell. 

In East Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains, which is America’s #1 nationally ranked park, welcomed more visitors in June and July than ever before. Places like Sevier County, Chattanooga, and Knoxville also saw more guests flocking to outdoor offerings. While larger cities, which typically drive the hospitality sect of tourism, remain quieter than normal.

“The hotel business, and entertainment, in our primary tourism cities have struggled,” said Ezell. “We have seen a decline in revenues, especially in Nashville.”

But Commissioner Ezell explains, individual snapshots of certain cities don’t tell the entire story.

“People have adjusted and spent money in other areas so that our overall revenue in sales tax are actually up.”

With that in mind, Governor Bill Lee has allocated $25 million through the Cares Act and Accountability Stimulus Group to focus on promoting safe travel to larger cities. 

“That’s going to determine how quickly we rebound,” Ezell said. 

Part of the plan is called the Tennessee Pledge, a state-wide effort to help people return to work in a safe environment. Another part of the plan is marketing to airport travelers.

“When it’s time for international travel to be open,” explained Ezell. “Nashville is well-positioned to take advantage of that.” 

It’s a balancing act, he says, exemplifying the reliance of the state and the people who live here.  

“We can’t predict that future, but we feel like we’ll be ready to adjust to survive however we need to until good times can come again.”

Commissioner Ezell is hopeful those good times will happen sooner rather than later as vaccine trials show promising results.

Stay with News 2 for continuing coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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