Editorial: East Tennessee should focus on tourism

Editorial Board • Aug 15, 2019 at 12:08 PM

Nashville is booming, leading the state in driving increased tourism and tax revenue that is outpacing the nation. In Northeast Tennessee, Sullivan County is nearly on the same pace as the state capital, demonstrating the potential that awaits a significant new focus on tourism development.

The state saw 119 million domestic visitors last year, up 5.1 percent from the previous year and producing an estimated $50 billion in new state and local tax dollars. Half of that went to support public education. Why is that so important? Because each Tennessee household would have to pay $712 in taxes to replace those tourism dollars.

Only Pennsylvania and Colorado surpassed Tennessee in tourism spending growth last year. Music City USA led the state in driving tourism, up 7 percent over the previous year while enjoying increased spending by tourists from $6.5 billion to $7 billion.

In these parts, Sullivan County recorded increased tourism spending of 6.04 percent, Washington County 5.8 percent and Hawkins 0.3 percent. Tourism revenue in Sullivan last year was $387 million, in Washington $258 million and in Hawkins $39 million, according to the state. That generated $10.6 million in local tax revenue for Sullivan, while Washington picked up $6 million and Hawkins $2.1 million.

This information comes from the annual economic impact report of the state Department of Tourist Development. What the report doesn’t tell us is specifically how those tourism dollars were spent, and that’s information the region needs to help it zero in on the major revenue generators.

What the report does tell us is that there’s gold in them there hills, but we’re not digging hard enough to open the mine.

There’s no doubt that some of that tourism tax revenue is driven by the region’s historical assets, and it could be more — likely much more — if the region came together with a plan to combine those assets and others and promote them.

Google finds that East Tennessee is known for its beauty, mountains, moonshine and bluegrass music. It’s also deep in the heart of the Bible Belt and the Appalachian region. And it’s literally awash in significant history starting with the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail.

All of these things could be part of a comprehensive tourism development program, and the best money this region could spend would be to hire tourism development consultants to map it out and develop recommendations on how to build and promote it.