Can tourism be an economic game changer? With the leisure and hospitality industry hitting an all-time high recently, creating more than 13 million jobs, many communities are once again banking on that possibility.
From the West Coast coves of California to the plains of Texas to the East Coast harbor towns of New Jersey, regions across the United States are adding tens of thousands of jobs to the tourism industry, which spans everything from performing arts companies, museums and amusement parks to professional sports teams, casinos, restaurants, bars and hotels.
While economic developers still debate the finer points of tourism’s role as an economic driver, there is no question that the two are inextricably linked, especially for cities like Nashville, which draws more than $3 billion in revenue just from its music-related tourism alone, or states like Kentucky, where promotion of distinctive assets like history, horses, bourbon and bluegrass accounts for one in every 10 jobs.
Tourism in Tennessee recently hit a milestone of more than $15 billion in direct economic impact — up $1.2 million from the previous year — putting Volunteer State ninth in U.S. tourism travel. In 2011, all of Tennessee’s counties experienced rise in tourism expenditures, some with 10-percent increases, and spending from international visitors also rose across the state.
Representatives from a few of these counties gathered to discuss the impact of the state’s growing tourism industry on economic development and their strategies for success during the recent Tennessee EDC Governor’s Conference.
One reason the state flourishes at the hospitality game is because “Tennesseans care about their heritage and the places where they live, so when people come to visit, we treat them like guests,” said Susan Whitaker, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.
Still, much of the recent growth has been the result of intentional efforts to make more visitors aware of Tennessee and all it offers in recreation, culture, entertainment and more. Panelists from Shelby, Rutherford and Hamilton counties shared their secrets to getting ahead in the tourism game, a few of which included:
Turning Challenges into Assets
Today Chattanooga is one of the brightest stars in Tennessee tourism, but that wasn’t always so. For years, the city fought an image problem after being named “dirtiest city in America” by Walter Cronkite during a 1969 report on pollution. Rather than sulk over the bad press, the factory town cleaned up its act and became one of the first to meet federal clean air standards. Through public-private partnerships, it also embarked on a two decades-long effort to revitalize its riverfront and bring green space back to the city’s core.
Originally, these improvements were intended to boost the quality of life of Chattanooga residents, but they had another desired effect: building a $900 million tourism industry. Since then, the city has managed to meld the “hip and historical,” drawing crowds to its riverfront district and world-class aquarium, and celebrating its natural assets with festivals like River Rocks, which sold out hotel rooms citywide the weekend of the event and earned national exposure.
“Chattanooga went from being a place you wouldn’t want to be 30 years ago to being packed and full of life today,” said Dave Santucci, vice president of marketing for the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, who relocated to the city from Atlanta a few years ago because of Chattanooga’s quality of life.
Murfreesboro in Rutherford County is drawing attention of its own as a destination for sports travel, hosting national, regional and state tournaments for soccer, softball, baseball, tennis and this year’s Extreme Bull Riding National Finals.
Tourism in the county has grown from $140 million to $252 million over the past decade — and that has been no accident, said Mona Herring, vice president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau for the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce. Murfreesboro might have remained in the shadow of neighboring Nashville had it not been for a desire to make its interstate exit more attractive.
Back in 1998, the city invested $12 million to purchase more than 300 acres around the exit and create an attractive new entrance to draw visitors off the interstate. The risk paid off. A new hotel and conference center followed a few years later, along with new restaurants and most recently an outdoor shopping complex attracting shoppers from surrounding counties.
At the same time, multimillion investments in new tennis courts, ball fields and a soccer complex put the county on the map for youth sports events, and the city’s partnership with Middle Tennessee State University to boost sporting venues on its campus helped attract more collegiate tournaments.
“The youth sports market is growing, and we want to capture that family vacation,” Herring said. “We believe we could become a capital for youth sports, which will allow more families to sample the community and come back as a leisure travel or even a business owner.”
Trying the Unexpected
The Mississippi River in Memphis has never been a strong tourist attraction for the area, but Diana Threadgill, president of the Mississippi River Corridor, hopes to change that. Her organization is partnering with six West Tennessee counties to “identify, conserve and interpret the region’s natural, cultural and scenic resources” and make the area “more recreational so we can retain more talent.”
The group has helped secure public and private funding for nature trails and a boardwalk along Reelfoot Lake — the state’s largest natural lake — and a blueway trail and floating boat dock in Dyer County. It’s also helping support a multimillion-dollar natural history park in Obion County and a “glam camping” concept in Lauderdale County. Threadgill hopes to “connect people to the great river” with plans for a pedestrian bike route stretching across the bridge from Memphis to West Memphis, Ark.
“We expect the total economic impact of all of this to be $6 billion over the next 20 years,” she said.
No matter how many or what kind of assets a community has, investing in quality of life is always a winning strategy, said Santucci of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Making Chattanooga cleaner and more attractive allowed the city to “retain its current talent and attract new talent,” he said. And ultimately it led to the attraction of jobs with companies like Volkswagen, Amazon.com, Alstom and others impressed by Chattanooga’s livability as much as its business climate.
“All of the investment the city made in improving the quality of life for its citizens is paying off now,” he said.