Tennessee tourism tab: $2.5M for airline vouchers

Ryman Auditorium
The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Todd DeFeo)

(The Center Square) – On the day Brad Paisley performed before a huge crowd in downtown Nashville to celebrate the Fourth of July, he also joined Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to launch a new tourism campaign, “Tennessee on Me.”

The promotion, which the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development said was paid for with $2.5 million set aside for tourism in the state’s new budget, gives a $250 airline voucher to anyone who books a two-night stay in one of four Tennessee cities, with some stipulations.

“The state’s buying all these airline tickets and giving them away to anybody that books two nights in a hotel room to come to Tennessee,” Gov. Bill Lee said to Paisley in the ad for the new program, posted Sunday to YouTube and social media channels. “So maybe it should be Tennessee on Governor Lee.”

The deal requires a visitor to book at least a two-night stay, including a Sunday through Wednesday night, at a designated hotel in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville or Chattanooga. Forty-eight hours after the stay is paid for, participants will receive a $250 airline voucher for American Airlines, Delta Airlines or Southwest Airlines to fly into an airport in one of those four cities.

Not everyone was pleased with the state spending taxpayer money on the promotion.

“Lee denies fed assistance – denies teachers pay raises – DCS workers drowning in cases, opioid deaths skyrocketing, gun violence higher than ever – TANF funds banked [and] not distributed – and he has the audacity to use our funds to buy plane tickets 4woo-girls WOW! – tone deaf is kind,” tweeted state Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville.

The deal began Monday and must be booked by Sept. 15, with the total airline vouchers capped at 10,000. Travel must take place between July 11 and Dec. 31 of this year.

“Tennessee is known around the world for its music, scenic beauty and iconic attractions,” Lee said in a news release. “We’re ready for people to come back to Tennessee ‘on me,’ to enjoy live music all over the state created by our talented musicians and songwriters like Brad Paisley.”

The department said tourism is the state’s second-largest industry, generating $23 billion in domestic and international travel spending in 2019 that led to $1.92 billion in state and local tax revenue.

“Tourism is vital to restoring the state’s economic health and recovery and this campaign will help fuel travel and visitor spending to the state,” a news release from the department said.

Some opponents of the tourism plan cited Saturday was the final day Tennessee remained part of the federal pandemic relief unemployment plan. Tennessee residents no longer are eligible for the $300 weekly federal stipend for unemployment that runs through Sept. 6.

The two funds, however, are not directly related as tourism funding came from the state’s budget, and the federal pandemic relief came from federal funds.

“I’m going to hope you didn’t know he cut the unemployment lifeline to so many [Tennessee] families who have no idea how they will eat or pay rent after [July 3] while giving money to those outside our state,” Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, tweeted to Paisley in response to his tweet about the campaign.

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