State tourism director: Outdoor assets, low population density offer region leg up in attracting visitors, new residents

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Northeast Tennessee’s scenic beauty, outdoor recreation opportunities and low population density position its tourism industry well to recover from the COVID-19 downturn, the state’s Commissoner of Tourist Development said.

“When you take counties like Washington, Sullivan, along with Sevier and all of the beauty with our lakes, with our rivers, with our mountains, we really do have an advantage,” Mark Ezell told News Channel 11. “Especially when people are wanting to drive instead of fly. So a lot of folks in this nation can get to Northeast and East Tennessee to enjoy the great outdoors.”

Visiting the area for the region’s Pinnacle Awards, Ezell cited recent data from Harvard University’s “Opportunity Insight Study” showing Tennessee as a whole having rebounded better than any other state in its hotel and restaurant industry.

“That’s the good news,” he said, “The bad news is we still have a long way to go before we’re able to get back to 2019 numbers.”

Data provided to the Johnson City CVB show a major decline in lodging during the height of the pandemic.

Indeed, data provided to the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau show hotel occupancy for April 2020 down 61 percent in Johnson City and 53 percent in Kingsport compared to April 2019. May to May comparisons showed Johnson City down 49 percent and Kingsport down 40 percent.

Ezell said his data show the area coping better than many places, and that same CVB data shows Asheville, N,.C.’s April and May declines at 79 percent and 72 percent.

Even though public revenues are struggling during the pandemic and hard-hit lodging taxes support CVB spending in this area, Ezell suggested localities take “it absolutely is a time to take good, calculated spending steps for tourism.”

He said the state is doing the same, with new ads out featuring songs promoting visits.

Tennessee Tourism Development Commissioner Mark Ezell

“We’re going to do that in a calculated way making sure our capacity, both health capacity and hotels and others is doing that in a safe way,” Ezell said.

He praised the region’s recent focus on promoting the outdoors, and the development of amenities such as bike trails to attract people. And while the numbers are all relative, it is working, Ezell said.

“We’re seeing people do that whether it’s Bays Mountain or Tannery Knobs or the various reasons why you want to come, in addition to Birthplace Museum in Bristol – there are attractions and there are outdoor facilities and opportunities to really enjoy with their families and do so safely.”

Northeast Tennessee may even have an advantage over areas such as the Great Smokies and Sevier County due to its outdoor assets and mountain towns being less highly trafficked, Ezell said. That can yield both tourism and relocation benefits, particularly if working from home remains more common following the pandemic.

“You’re closely located to a lot of dense population urban cities that do give the opportunity for folks to decide if they can work remotely that they might want to move to a beautiful place,” Ezell said. 

“In the meantime, what we know is if they are working remotely they’ve got more time to travel and we can take advantage of them learning about the great assets that we have. So first let’s get them to visit and we think once they come here people are being hospitable, folks can be safe when they come, they can realize this is a community that cares about each other. That’s why our Tennessee mask program is so important.”

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