In his amended budget proposal last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam moved to slash an additional $2 million from the state’s tourism advertising budget, after already suggesting an initial cut of $2 million.
The proposal, if approved by the General Assembly, will reduce the money Tennessee spends on tourism advertising by half — from $8 million annually to $4 million.
Tourism is consistently billed as Tennessee’s No. 1 industry. In fact, in a letter from the state’s Department of Tourism last October, it was stated, “As our state’s No. 1 non-agricultural industry, tourism is essential to our economic success . . .”
Nowhere is that statement more evident that in rural communities reeling from the downturn in the U.S. manufacturing industry. Increasingly, those rural communities — like Scott, Fentress and Pickett counties — are turning to their scenic beauty and natural resources to supplement their local economies and cushion the blow of lost jobs in other industrial sectors.
Dollar-for-dollar, the governor’s proposal will have its greatest impact on the state’s richest tourism areas — Sevier County, Chattanooga, and similar areas.
However, the Sevier County cities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville collectively spent $18 million on tourism-related advertising last year alone. Those areas have much deeper coffers than rural areas like Scott, Fentress and Pickett counties, which rely heavily on the state’s help to market the Big South Fork and Dale Hollow Lake to out-of-state tourists.
In Scott County, for instance, tourism planners count it a success that a couple of recent events have helped raise a few thousand dollars to “splurge” for new tourism brochures. It’s a far cry from the millions the city of Gatlinburg spends to market itself and the neighboring Smokies in print and digital media across the nation. Any way you slice it, the governor’s proposal will have a disproportionate negative impact on rural areas with fledgling tourism markets.
It has been said that for every dollar the state spends on tourism advertising, $19 in revenue is generated. Assuming these numbers are accurate, Tennessee is — in effect — willing to axe $76 million in revenue for businesses, and the associated tax dollars generated from that revenue, to cut $4 million from the budget . . . $4 million that will come from the state’s No. 1 non-agricultural industry.
Politics are seldom easy to figure out, but this is a real head-scratcher.