Chattanooga-area tourism spending jumps more than 40% last year

Staff file Photo by Robin Rudd / Barry White is president of the Chattanooga Tourism Co.
Staff file Photo by Robin Rudd / Barry White is president of the Chattanooga Tourism Co.

Tourism spending in Hamilton County jumped more than 40% last year coming out of the worst of the pandemic, boosting visitor spending back above $1.5 billion in 2021, according to a new report released by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

Last year's tourism spending in Chattanooga was still below the pre-pandemic peak reached in 2019, but the local growth in visitor spending topped the U.S. growth pace last year after shutdowns in 2020 forced business closings and layoffs in the industry in 2020.

Barry White, president of the Chattanooga Tourism Co., said Tuesday even with most businesses reopened last year, hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions "still faced huge challenges with the ongoing pandemic impacts on health, travel plans, workforce, supply chains and inflation.

(READ MORE: Tourism turnaround: Travelers eager to vacation this summer boost Chattanooga hotel revenues above pre-pandemic levels)

"Just like in 2020, we were all in the same storm, but we weren't in the same ship," White said in a statement. "Chattanooga is resilient and fared better than the nation and the major cities in Tennessee."

Tourism spending in Hamilton County rose by more than $430 million last year, and tourism officials say it is continuing to grow this year, especially as many conventions and meetings are back this year for the first time since before the pandemic.

Hugh Morrow, chairman of the Chattanooga Tourism Co. board and president and CEO of Ruby Falls, called last year "a huge year of recovery" which he said was led by leisure and sports tourism visitors who came in record numbers.

"Hamilton County bounced back much sooner than expected with a quick recovery," Morrow said in a statement. "In 2022 and into 2023, the Chattanooga Tourism team is working to move from full recovery and into growth, bringing back all aspects of tourism, including conventions, meetings and business travelers supporting our many hotels, restaurants and attractions."

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Barnett Spotts, 4, and Gloria Spotts, 2, watch a penguin at the Tennessee Aquarium on Friday, July 1, 2022.

(READ MORE: Through floods, pandemics and near bankruptcy, Read House keeps Chattanooga history, tourism alive for 150 years)

Statewide, the Department of Tourist Development estimates tourists in Tennessee generated $24.2 billion of spending in 2021, or $66 million per day. Although still below the pre-pandemic levels, the growth in visitor spending last year from the depressed level in 2020 marked the biggest increase in Tennessee's history.

Travel in Tennessee generated $1.9 billion in state and local tax revenue and supported 317,000 jobs in the state, making tourism Tennessee's third largest employer, according to the U.S. Travel study.

"Tourism drives economic development and job creation so that every Tennessean can thrive," Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday in an announcement of the new spending figures. "Our decision to prioritize strong recovery has yielded record levels of tourism growth, and we continue to welcome visitors to see all Tennessee has to offer, from the Mississippi River to the Great Smoky Mountains."

Mark Ezell, the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, said Tennessee's share of total U.S. visitor spending was the highest ever in 2021.

"Tennessee is one of the top travel destinations in the world because of our tremendous assets, including our unmatched scenic beauty, diverse cities and small towns, as well as our world class attractions, music, cultural and historical sites," Ezell said in a report issued Tuesday.

All 95 counties in Tennessee saw an increase in visitor spending over 2020, and nine counties, including Polk, Grundy and Hamilton, had more than 40% growth in year-over-year travel spending last year, according to U.S. Travel data.

Hamilton County tourism by the numbers

$1.51 billion — Direct visitor spending.

$402 million — Labor income from tourism-related industries.

11,620 — Jobs in tourism-related businesses.

Source: The 2021 Economic Impact on Travel Report.

Tourism growth in Hamilton County

Annual spending by visitors dropped by 30% during the pandemic in 2020 but rebounded last year:

2015 — $1.21 billion

2016 — $1.27 billion

2017 — $1.36 billion

2018 — $1.47 billion

2019 — $1.54 billion

2020 — $1.08 billion

2021 — $1.51 billion

Source: The 2021 Economic Impact on Travel Report

Tourism spending across Southeast Tennessee

Visitors spend more than $2 billion in Southeast Tennessee:

Hamilton County — $1.51 billion.

Cumberland County — $170.1 million.

Bradley County — $168.7 million.

Coffee County — $122.4 million.

Franklin County — $55.1 million.

Grundy County — $12.2 million.

Bledsoe County — $3.9 million.

Source: The 2021 Economic Impact on Travel Report

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.

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