Tennessee tourism is something of a bright spot amidst a lot of other gray economic news, the state’s tourism commissioner said this morning.
“It’s been a tough year for everyone, but Tennessee tourism has actually fared very well, especially relative to our competitive states,” Commissioner Susan Whitaker told members of the Senate Environment and Conservation Committee Tuesday.
That’s good news for Tennessee in general, as tourism is the state’s biggest non-farm industry sector.
For the first two quarters of 2009, the most recent estimates available, Tennessee tourism-industry business in total took about a 3 percent dip from 2008, said Whitaker. However, “leisure travel” increased 4 percent, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Goods and services providers that depend on Tennessee tourism include food service, entertainment and recreation, lodging, retail sales, public transportation, auto rentals and travel planners.
The Travel Association numbers, released last summer, show tourism in Tennessee generated nearly $14.4 billion, a 1.5 percent increase from 2007 to 2008. Payroll income, however, was down 1.4 percent from 2007.
In the Southeastern United States, generally one of the strongest regions for tourism in the country, some states have seen double digit decline in the past couple years, Whitaker said.
Tennessee’s strong performance in the travel and tourism market was mainly driven by domestic travel, which has shown consistent growth over the past few years, according to the Travel Association report.
Nationally, Tennessee ranks now in the top 10 as a vacation destination state, said Whitaker, Tennessee’s Department of Tourist Development director since 2003.
Whitaker indicated she’s optimistic about tourism in Tennessee going forward. “We have such a wonderful, varied product,” she said. The state’s convenient geographical location and diversity of attractions has helped it weather the economic storm, and will likely continue to do so, she said.
“Where some of the state got hit very hard with business travel declines and convention contraction, there were other parts of the state that had their best years in 2008, and even last year,” she said. For example, businesses that promote and cater to river recreation have been doing particularly well, she said.
The agency’s strategy is to “to create programs and infrastructure for (local businesses and tourism promoters) to plug into and give them a leg up on our competitive states.”
“That’s been very effective,” she said, crediting her agency’s efforts for helping Tennessee move into the U.S. tourism Top 10. “At one point we were were 14th, and then 12th and now were are 8th or 10th, depending on the measure you look at,” she said.
The key challenge for the agency in the future is developing “programs that are going to benefit everybody,” she said.
Whitaker said the department’s promotional spot with Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley “went literally around the world.
“We had over 400 TV clips and 260 articles written in six-weeks time, which vaulted our website to the Top 10, which was actually ahead of Florida’s and California’s websites,” she said.
During Gov. Phil Bredesen’s budget hearings in November Whitaker proposed the state spend about $7.6 million on the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development in the coming fiscal year.
“That reflects approximately a $4.9 million reduction in non-recurring funds,” she told Bredesen at the time. “Most of that reduction will occur in the marketing department. That’s where we have the discretionary funds — and we have been able to determine that probably will be eliminating pretty much the TV and print (advertising and PR efforts).”
But the website will remain “fresh and updated” under that fiscal formula, she said.
The department’s newest online promotional effort is called, “That’s My Tennessee Story, What’s Yours.” She said it has “gained the support of people who absolutely love being here,” like country star Kieth Urban and others who are recording spots essentially “for nothing.”
Whitaker said that while it is true visitors to Tennessee do tend to gravitate to the larger metro areas to start, once they get here, “They start finding out about other things they want to do.”
“People don’t just come for a couple days in the big city here,” said Whitaker. “They like to get out on the backroads.”
She said the state’s “Discover Tennessee Trails and Byways” program — “a statewide initiative encompassing all 95 counties along 15 regional trails, and featuring Tennessee’s five National Scenic Byways and highlighting more than 70 significant tourism sites” — will help visitors get out and spend their money in rural Tennessee.
Mark Todd Engler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.