Is Knoxville a Tourist Destination?

Governor's Conference on Hospitality and Tourism, September 2023
Governor’s Conference on Hospitality and Tourism, September 2023

Knoxville hosted the Governor’s Conference on Hospitality and Tourism last week at the Convention Center. Governor Lee announced that TN benefited from $28.9B in tourism spending in 2022 from 140.93 million visitors to our state. Tennessee ranks 11th in the country for visitor spending. TN is the fastest-growing state in tourism in the top 40 states. I was amazed at our ranking.

Knoxville/Knox County contributed to that number through $1.9B in tourism spending for 2022. This is a 13.7% increase over 2021. Lodging spending alone went up 26.9% in 2022 over 2021. This generates tax revenue that benefits the local Knoxville residents by around $978 in tax savings. Knox County ranked as the 4th county for tourism in TN, only behind Davidson (Nashville), (Shelby) Memphis, and Sevier.

Governor’s Conference on Hospitality and Tourism, Governor Bill Lee, September 2023

It is interesting to hear many people say they don’t see Knoxville as a tourist destination. As someone who first came to Knoxville as a tourist, it’s hard for me to see that point of view. I still get the “vacation feeling” when I walk through Market Square or visit Ijams Nature Center or any number of the local amenities I think many may take for granted.

When considering what tourism means for a city, I think of hotels, restaurants, and activities/events. Knoxville has a thriving arts and music scene, bringing tremendous performances from artists like Garth Brooks, Elton John, etc. In November, we are hosting a national Film Festival. We have food and culture festivals year-round, easy access to the Smokies, the University of Tennessee, and several other higher education institutions that attract many tourists. Our parks and recreation scene is growing as well. Think soccer tournaments and other sports. We have a James Beard Award-winning chef, and many local restaurants are recognized nationally. Many people travel just for the food scene in a particular city. Knoxville can handle large events and amounts of tourism because we can provide the lodging, transportation, and restaurants it takes.

Governor’s Conference on Hospitality and Tourism, Zoo Knoxville Ambassador, September 2023

BassMaster Classic 2023 brought in 164,000 tourists, breaking the attendance record. After this massive event, locals still told me they had no idea it had even happened. Hospitality and leisure in Knoxville are doing well when we can bring in that number of tourists, and the locals do not notice. BassMaster Classic won event of the year for the state at the conference for its impact on our community. These things are happening right under our noses all the time, and with the new stadium build and all that is planned to go along with it, we can expect to see more.

Jeff Gustafson, Bassmaster Classic, Knoxville, March 2023 (Photo Courtesy of Bassmaster Classic and Visit Knoxville)

Other awards were given at the conference, and Knoxville won several.

Community Service: Lodging- Tru by Hilton, Knoxville North

Destination Marketing Organization Employee of the Year: Large Organization-Kristen Combs (Visit Knoxville and author of 100 Things to Do in Knoxville Before you Die)

Lodging Employee of the Year: Medium Property- Mostafa “Mort” Eladawy, Embassy Suites Knoxville West

Best in Glass- Yee-Haw Brewing Co. Knoxville

Destination Marketing Organization of the Year: Large Organization- Visit Knoxville

Hospitality Achievement Award- JB Blunt, Embassy Suites Knoxville Downtown

2023 Restaurateur of the Year-Kirby Smith (Scrambled Jakes, the upcoming Aretha Frankenstien’s, and several others in Sevier County)

Governor’s Conference on Hospitality and Tourism, Visit Knoxville team, September 2023

For better or worse, Knoxville has a growing tourist scene with downtown being at the heart of it. We are a destination city with so much to offer. While we will have growing pains, we have what it takes to continue bringing great programming and activities to Knoxville while highlighting the history and magnificence of nature around us.

Healthy tourism reflects a healthy community.

Governor’s Conference on Hospitality and Tourism, September 2023