Gov. Bill Haslam this week announced the departure of Susan Whitaker, who is stepping down as commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. She’s been at the post for the past 12 years and served under two governors.
Whitaker was appointed by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2003 and re-appointed by Haslam, a Republican, in 2011. She is returning to the private sector, according to an administration press release. During her time as commissioner, she oversaw development of the state’s ad campaigns in an effort to stimulate Volunteer State tourism growth, including the TNVacation.com website and the state’s 14 welcome centers.
Last month, on the first day of Haslam’s preliminary budget hearings for fiscal year 2015-16, Whitaker proposed a budget of $27 million for the department. State dollars would represent the bulk of that at $18 million, with $9 million coming from federal funds.
Whitaker said her department’s goal was to make Tennessee the “global music destination of choice.” A new state tourism ad campaign that was launched this summer has already produced more consumer engagements in the first quarter of its use than the total number the state had in fiscal year 2012-13, she said.
The tourism industry had a direct economic impact of $16.7 billion on Tennessee in 2013, which is 3.4 percent more than 2012, according to a press release. Additionally, in 2013 the Volunteer State collected $1.28 billion in tourism-related taxes — a new high and the eighth consecutive year of more than $1 billion in state tourism revenue collections.
While all 95 of the state’s counties saw at least $1 million in direct tourism spending, 19 counties had $100 million in tourism expenditures and three of the state’s counties — Shelby, Davidson and Sevier — were each responsible for more than $1 billion in tourism spending themselves, Whitaker told Haslam in November. And 55 of the state’s counties generated more than $1 million in local tourism sales tax revenue, she added.
The fact that each county was seeing a significant amount of tourism-related spending is a testament to the Discover Tennessee Trails & Byways program, which was launched during Whitaker’s tenure and features 16 statewide trails that touch all 95 counties in the state, Whitaker said. It was designed to move dollars out of the urban hubs into the state’s rural areas, she added.
Around the time of the recession there was a dip in tourism spending, but the state has seen “exciting growth” in this industry recently, Whitaker said.
In 2013, there were 96.4 million “person stays,” a 4.7 percent increase over 2012, and international travel had a $531.6 million economic impact on the state, Whitaker said.
Whitaker said ABC’s “Nashville,” which is in 60 international markets, was one driver of the growth in international travel the state has seen. “So, thank you for supporting that show, too. Even though it’s not exactly tourism, it’s sure having an impact in a lot of places,” she said.
Whitaker proposed a budget with no staffing cuts, a spending reduction of $762,000 in recurring marketing activities funds and a spending increase of $8.25 million. The increase breaks down to $8 million in non-recurring funds for the Tourism Task Force’s marketing efforts to get into new markets — including the Washington D.C. area — and $250,000 to provide security at two renovated and two new welcome centers that will be opened later this year, she said.
However, she warned cutting the recurring funds would impact the department’s marketing abilities and limit the amount of markets state tourism ads are able to reach.
Whitaker has agreed to remain in the position until Haslam names a replacement, according to the release.