Next Step In Tennessee Tourism? Getting Visitors To Rural Counties | Nashville Public Radio

Next Step In Tennessee Tourism? Getting Visitors To Rural Counties

Oct 13, 2015

In an attempt to diversify the state's attractiveness to visitors, tourism officials are eyeing growth in rural areas of Tennessee.

Last year, 72 percent of the tourism dollars spent in Tennessee — $17.7 billion in all — came from just five counties: those with the four largest cities and the Smoky Mountains. The state doesn't want to rely on such a small number of big players, says tourism Commissioner Kevin Triplett.

"The challenge that we have as a department is ... How do we work with our other 90 counties in getting that number up?"

Take the city of Manchester in Coffee County. It's home to 10,000 residents — except for four days each year, when more than 80,000 people stop by for the Bonnaroo Music and Arts festival.

"We're known globally because of Bonnaroo," says vice mayor Ryan French, who also heads the city's tourism initiative. "How do we take advantage of that the other 361 days of the year?"

The town is trying to leverage its proximity to the Jack Daniels and George Dickel distilleries, French says. But he's one of the only people working on tourism in the entire county — something Triplett says is common in rural areas.

"Their budgets aren't as high. Their marketing dollars aren't as high," Triplett says. 

That's where the state tourism department is stepping in. It's been giving out marketing grants to rural counties, and setting up a series of seminars around the state to train local officials on how to get more visitors.

This doesn’t mean every county needs a flashy attraction, Triplett says. They just need to learn how to market what they have.

"The historical aspects we have here, the musical aspects we have here — our goal is to develop all that and connect it," he says.

This goal will also be boosted by a new million-dollar grant from the state to improve rural tourist sites.