Tourism spending on the rise in Northeast Tennessee

Zach Vance • Sep 2, 2018 at 12:22 AM

A recently released Tennessee Department of Tourist Development report shows tourism spending in Northeast Tennessee and across the state grew significantly in 2017.

Statewide, total travel expenditures totaled $20.77 billion, with all 95 counties experiencing an increase in the economic impact of tourism, according to the data compiled by the U.S. Travel Association. It was the second straight year tourism in Tennessee generated more than $1 billion in state tax revenues.

Washington County was among the top 10 counties in the state for visitor spending with $257.5 million in recorded travel expenditures, a 4.7 percent increase over the previous year.

As far as tax receipts, Washington County tourism generated $15.44 million in state taxes and $6.01 million in local taxes.

Without this additional revenue, Brenda Whitson, executive director of the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Washington County households would have to pay more than $418 in additional property taxes each year to make up the difference.

Whitson and Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy both estimated the county spends roughly $200,000 each year in tourism advertising.

“When you look at the amount of advertising spent that we do in Washington County, it is well leveraged against the revenue it generates. And we’re going up against communities like Asheville that spends over $3 million in promoting their community and assets,” Grandy said.

The state report also showed approximately 1,950 people in Washington County work in hospitality industry jobs related to tourism. The total payroll of those jobs equals more than $34 million, which grew 5.6 percent compared to last year.

“Based on our budget allocated by the City of Johnson City for our portion of lodging tax paid by our visitors, we are seeing a more than 420 percent increase in return on investment for our community, and that makes a difference in taxes for our locals,” Whitson said.

From the Jonesborough Visitors Center to the Tweetsie Trail and the various hiking and bike trails, Whitson said the county has a lot to entice visitors to come to Washington County Even amenities located outside of the county, such as Bristol Motor Speedway and Bays Mountain, still attract tourists to visit or stay Washington County or Johnson City.

“When you look at Washington County as a whole, as far as the offerings we have for tourism, there are so many things out there from our outdoor recreation assets to the incredible things happening in Jonesborough with the International Storytelling Center,” Whitson said.

“As we continue to see assets grow from local restaurants, from breweries and things like that, it will only enhance the experience that people have when they come here.”

Johnson City Vice Mayor Jenny Brock said recent investments in the new Tannery Knobs Bike Park and Buffalo Mountain will continue to fuel tourism; she also said it improves the quality of life for those who live here. 

“It is wonderful to see the excitement others see in our city for their events. We have been investing in the infrastructure that makes us a great destination for visitors to enjoy, but more importantly, for our citizens to call home,” Brock said. 

While he was pleased with the growth in tourism spending, Grandy said he believes the county can still do better promoting itself to visitors.

“One of the ways we do better is promote the region, as opposed to our individual entities,” Grandy said.

“We’re coming together. We have a group of people who are focused on figuring out how to market our outdoor assets, our bike trails, our hiking, plus all the other things we have to offer. Collectively, I think if we market it as a group, we can become a destination. It opens up our community to visibility.”

Grandy said the formation of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Partnership, which promotes development and tourism in Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties, will continue to benefit the region when it comes to tourism.

NETREP recently helped organize the first-ever Meet Your Mountains festival in downtown Johnson City, which saw hundreds of attendees.

Carter County saw a 6.3 increase in travel expenditures from 2017 to 2016, while Sullivan County and Unicoi County saw 4 percent increases. Sullivan County generated the most in travel expenditures, $386.7 million, out of all the Northeast Tennessee counties.

Five counties across the state exceeded $1 billion in travel expenditures, including Davidson ($6.505 billion), Shelby ($3.503 billion), Sevier ($2.276 billion), Hamilton ($1.112 billion), and Knox ($1.097 billion).

2017 Economic Impact of Domestic Travel on Northeast Tennessee Counties

*County level data includes domestic travel only. Source: U.S. Travel Association

Travel Expenditures
Percentage Change from 2016
State Tax Receipts
Local Tax Receipts
Washington County
$257.5 million
$15.44 million
$6.01 million
Carter County
$39.47 million
$2.44 million
$2.49 million
Unicoi County
$9.27 million
Sullivan County
$386.70 million
$21.49 million
$10.63 million
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