NASHVILLE, Tenn., (WKRN) — From the nation’s most visited national park to historic live music venues that draw in millions of people, tourism is the number two industry in Tennessee.

After a decade of growth and a record-breaking 2019, 2020 was set to be even bigger until COVID-19 hit. Conventions were canceled, trips were put on hold, and openings were pushed back.

The National Museum of African American music in Nashville was slated to open Labor Day 2020 but was delayed to this month.

NMAAM National Museum of African American Music
(Photo: WKRN)

“Doing this in a pandemic certainly has created a series of challenges for us, but I think we’ve lived up to them. We have a great team that doubled down and worked harder,” said Henry Hicks, NMAAM President and CEO.

The museum has been expected to draw visitors from all over the country, but like the grand opening, that will likely also be delayed.

The U.S. Travel Association predicts the travel economy in Tennessee could see a 35 to 45 percent drop from 2019 when the state hit a record high $23 billion in domestic and international travel spending.

Sectors of state sales tax revenue tied to that have taken a big hit. “We are still targeted in leisure and hospitality areas to be down about $250 million because of that lack of that business traveler and entertainment venues,” said Mark Ezell, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development

Ezell said larger cities, including Nashville and Memphis, have suffered the most – especially when it comes to hotel stays. The opposite is true in East Tennessee, where tourists have flocked to socially-distanced, outdoor attractions.

“There is a demand for people to get out and to want to go and see and take their families and experience Tennessee,” Ezell said.

The Department of Tourist Development received $25 million in federal CARES Act funding to promote COVID-19-safe tourism in Tennessee.

In December, the U.S. Small Business Administration was allotted $15 billion to help shuttered live entertainment venues through grants.

“We’ve got potentially up to 35 or 40 percent of the workforce who is still unemployed come from that hospitality segment,” Ezell said. “We want to help those businesses get back open, and we think with the vaccine, we can do that. Then those are 10s of thousands of jobs that can be restored that help drive tourism dollars for Tennessee.”

With the unique attractions Tennessee has to offer, more vaccines and a positive outlook, there is optimism.

“This is a great time to be opening a museum although we are in a pandemic because music has the ability to heal. It has the ability to bring us together and there is so much of that that we need it the world today,” said Dr. Dina Bennett, Curatorial Director for NMAAM.