NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee's commissioner for the Department of Tourist Development apologized Wednesday for how the "Tennessee On Me" program was rolled out.
Commissioner Mark Ezell was presenting the accomplishments of the department and the condition of the state to a joint committee of lawmakers when he made the comments.
"Tennessee On Me" is an incentive program for out-of-state visitors to buy hotel rooms in participating cities and then the state provides a $250 voucher for airfare.
The idea received blowback from many community members and politicians across the state. Some believed it was a waste of taxpayer money when hospitality businesses had fully reopened.
"I want to pause and take responsibility for not doing a good job communicating this campaign to you and other stakeholders," said Ezell. "I really apologize how we launched the program. It's doing the job of breaking through and generating the kind of value and purpose that we had planned but I should've done a better job of explaining the purpose and the value of the program and I'm sorry for that confusion."
Ezell went onto say that the program's site had already received 300,000 visits and 1,400 people had already booked flights for the program.
Of the $2.5 million set aside for the program, $350,000 has already been used, he said.
Ezell said the goal is to increase revenue for the hotel industry which is seeing millions of dollars in losses each month compared to peak tourism years, such as 2019.
Visitors have to book a two-night stay at a hotel to redeem the flight voucher. One of those days has to be between Sunday and Wednesday, which are off times for hotel rooms.
Memphis Representative London Lamar questioned the program. Ezell said the funds were available from the state Department of Revenue back in March.
Rep. Lamar also questioned whether or not it was smart to be inviting visitors to Tennessee when COVID-19 cases were starting to rise.
Ezell said his department was trying to attract visitors that may go to other southern states, such as Florida.
Tourism By The Numbers
Tourism is Tennessee's second-leading industry and the pandemic halted seven years of consecutive growth.
Between 2016 and 2019, visitor spending in Tennessee increased by 23% - which is higher than the national average of 17%.
By 2019, traveler spending was at an all-time high at $23 billion, bringing in $1.92 billion in state and local sales tax revenue. Tourism generated over $75 million in new and local tax dollars - half of which helps fund public education.
The industry is vital to Tennessee by generating 195,000 jobs in the year before the pandemic, making leisure and hospitality the fastest growing industries in the state in 2019.
Tourism was on track for another record year in 2020 until the industry was halted by COVID-19. According to the Tennessee Department of Revenue, $303 million was lost in state revenue between March and December 2020.
Before the pandemic, Davidson County ranked No. 1 out of all the state's 95 counties in the economic impact generated by tourism, with $7.524 billion in direct spending in 2019. The industry brought in 74,440 jobs, created $189.01 million in local tax revenue and $377.42 million in state tax revenue.
Early estimates of 2020 show Nashville lost $4.5 billion in visitor spending in 2020, according to Butch Spyridon, the CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation.