Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee over the holiday weekend announced the state will now buy plane tickets for tourists planning to visit Tennessee’s largest cities, an initiative being funded by tax dollars and drawing opposition from one of the legislature’s top leaders.
Joined in a video by country music star Brad Paisley, Lee on Sunday took to social media to promote the initiative, called “Tennessee on Me.”
“The state’s buying all these airline tickets and giving them away to anybody who books two nights in a hotel room to come to Tennessee, so it’s ‘Tennessee on me,'” Lee said to Paisley in the video, as the two worked out a jingle for the program.
“Tennessee on Gov. Lee,” Paisley replied, receiving affirmation from the governor, who is up for reelection in 2022. So far, no serious contenders have announced a challenge to the governor, who remains popular.
The initiative is being paid for with state funds, a $2.5 million allocation proposed by the governor in the 2021-2022 budget and listed only as a “Marketing Project” for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.
How travelers can get $250 flight voucher to Tennessee
The initiative will provide the first 10,000 people to book two-night stays at hotels in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga with $250 airline vouchers.
The vouchers count for the Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville airports through Delta, American Airlines, or Southwest Airlines.
Visitors must book at least a two-night hotel package in one of the four cities, with at least one night Sunday through Wednesday. They can be booked at www.TennesseeOnMe.com.
Visitors can book until Sept. 15 and must travel between July 11 and Dec. 30, with one airline voucher per hotel booking, not per person.
Tourism plan sets off political firestorm
Legislators were apparently blindsided by the July 4 announcement of state funds being used to pay for tourists’ airfare. Neither Lt. Gov. Randy McNally nor House Speaker Cameron Sexton were aware of the program’s details prior to its launch, they said.
In a statement Tuesday, McNally, R-Oak Ridge, noted the state’s tourism industry has “bounced back in record time” after coming to a halt during the pandemic.
He would have preferred “a more traditional approach” to tourism marketing, McNally said, “rather than direct transfers of Tennessee taxpayer money to mostly out-of-state recipients.”
“It is especially troubling that the promotion is limited to our major cities,” McNally continued. “At least two of those cities exacerbated the economic crisis by instituting overly aggressive lockdown policies.
“It makes little sense to limit the promotion to those cities when our rural areas were hit as hard, if not harder, by the economic crisis than those cities.”
Sexton, R-Crossville, said he also would like to see the scope of the program expanded beyond Tennessee’s largest cities, but said he would wait and see the effectiveness of the program, which has for now only been funded for one year.
“It was approved in our budget,” Sexton said. “We’ll see how it works.”
McNally said he plans to ask Lee’s office and the Department of Tourist Development to, in the future, provide more details during the budget process about their initiatives.
Amanda Murphy, a spokesperson for the tourism department, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that the initiative came about as a collaborative effort between Lee’s office and the department to make up for hospitality industry losses in 2020.
Between March and December 2020, the state lost $300 million in tax revenue from the tourism industry, its second-largest generator of revenue, though overall Tennessee continued to exceed the prior year’s revenue totals throughout the pandemic.
“While much of the state is seeing pre-pandemic or higher levels of hotel occupancy, challenges remain in our big cities who still feel the loss of conventions, business and international travel,” Murphy said in an email.
Fiscal conservatives raise eyebrows at plane ticket plan
The Beacon Center of Tennessee, a fiscally conservative think tank, released a statement saying “it’s not the role of the government to give out our hard-earned tax dollars to tourists who want to check out Broadway,” Nashville’s honky tonk strip.
“While Gov. Lee has done a good job of balancing lives and livelihoods during the pandemic, this is is a poorly thought out plan,” said Mark Cunningham, Beacon’s vice president of strategy and communications.
“The government is picking winners and losers since only four Tennessee cities are included as part of the promotion, and it will likely just end up being another taxpayer-funded gift to Nashville.”
After The Tennessean, which is part of the USA TOAY Network, inquired with various officials Tuesday morning to determine the funding source for the plane ticket initiative — and prior to receiving a response from the state’s tourism department — Sen. Bo Watson, chairman of the Senate finance committee, confirmed that $2.5 million had been allocated in the budget for a tourism marketing project.
Watson, R-Hixson, noted the state’s tourism department has previously received nonrecurring funds for marketing efforts and has had success with those. Watson, however, said he would “leave it to the Department of Tourism to defend the strategy.”
“It may not be the strategy I would employ, but I don’t do hospitality and marketing work,” Watson said.
But the finance chairman did take some issue with the the wording of Lee’s “Tennessee on Me” jingle.
“The people of Tennessee are inviting you to come to Tennessee, not the governor,” Watson said. “This is not the governor’s money, this is taxpayers’ money.”