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Former Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey accepts an award presented by Jim Bambrey on Friday at the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau's annual meeting.

Hamilton County tourists spent more than $989 million last year -- and numbers like that make an $8 million increase in the state's tourism budget a no-brainer for Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

Haslam discussed Tennessee's tourism industry in front of about 1,000 people at the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau annual meeting Friday.

"When we talk about recruiting business to come to Tennessee, we tend to think about big manufacturers -- which we love and are really important -- but tourism really does drive a lot of employment in Tennessee and a lot of revenue for local and state governments," he said after the program ended. "We're more than confident we'll make at least that much back through sales tax collection."

Haslam jumped the state's tourism budget from about $20 to $28 million, a 36 percent increase. It's an investment he says will pay off.

"Right now we do about $15 billion a year in tourism in the state," he said. "If we can increase that even 5 percent, that's a billion dollars a year, which translates into $70 million in sales tax. So we're putting toether a strategy on how we get folks to come to Tennessee, and how to get them to stay longer."

People already are staying longer in Hamilton County, said Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau. Hoteliers booked 156,000 rooms during the last fiscal year, an all-time record high.

"It's a record and it doesn't even include Ironman or the American Quilting Society," Doak said. "Those two groups together will have an estimated economic impact of $70 million over the next five years."

Tourism directly employs 8,500 people in Hamilton County, Doak said, and generates $19 million in local sales tax. He thinks Chattanooga needs to continue to invest in downtown in order to grow the local tourism industry further, building on the foundation laid by attractions like the Tennessee Aquarium and the Riverwalk and community leaders.

Doak pointed to former Hamilton County mayor Claude Ramsey and former Chattanooga mayor Jon Kinsey as two of the people who were key in growing the tourism industry during the last 15 years.

"Claude Ramsey and Jon Kinsey were the dynamic duo," Doak said.

Both men were awarded the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau Chairman Award at the Friday meeting, joining only five other recipients. The award is given to honor people who have made an outstanding contribution to the tourism industry.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at or 423-757-6525.