Tourism turnaround: Vacation-seeking travelers boost hotel revenues above pre-pandemic levels this summer

Tennessee’s tourism economy grew in 2019, with a record number of visitors coming to the volunteer state that year and spending more than $22 billion.

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. In March 2020, the state’s tourism economy virtually ground to a halt overnight, causing many of the 150,000 tourism-related jobs to be cut across the Volunteer State in restaurants, retail stores, hotels and attractions.

Although most businesses reopened by the end of spring 2020 and travel spending recovered somewhat during the rest of the year, 2020 visitor spending still fell over 30% in Hamilton County in 2020, reversing decades of growth in visitor spending in a picturesque city and cutting nearly 3,500 jobs in Chattanooga.

But after more than two years of self-isolation, travel restrictions and working from home, many families want to travel again this year.

“There is a huge pent-up demand and people are eager to get out and see places like Chattanooga,” says Barry White, president of Chattanooga Travel Company.

The $1.5 billion-a-year tourism industry in Hamilton County has rebounded and is even generating more local revenue than the previous record-breaking 2019.

While hotel occupancy is relatively unchanged since the recovery in 2021, Hamilton County now has about 3% more hotel rooms compared to 2019, and more are on the drawing board. Based on hotel room tax collection data compiled by the Hamilton County Trustee’s office.

The average cost of a hotel room in Chattanooga has also topped $100 a night over the past year as rising demand, newer luxury properties and inflationary pressures have driven average rates up.

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Tourism turnaround: Vacation-seeking travelers boost hotel revenues above pre-pandemic levels this summer

Address of Chattanooga

Even with higher rates, Chattanooga remains a more affordable market than many major cities and is within a day’s drive of more than half of the US population.

“We’ve had a very strong spring season and are looking forward to a very strong summer,” says Keith Sanford, president of the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga’s largest tourist destination, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. “Chattanooga is a great travel destination and I think people want to travel again.”

Aquarium officials predict there will be slightly more visitors this year than the last pre-pandemic year in 2019, when about 780,000 people visited. Last year, the aquarium was visited by 668,709 people.

By numbers

* $1.5 trillion – Annual economic value of the tourism industry in Hamilton County.

* 43,000 – Number of daily visitors to Hamilton County.

* $4.1 million – Daily expenses of visitors for food, entertainment, accommodation and…


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