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Bella Blackwell, 8, Everrett Pyron, 5, and Lilly Blackwell, 5, dunk their fingers into the water as a stingray passes by at the Tennessee Aquarium on Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The cousins from Alexandria, La., and Birmingham, Ala., traveled to the aquarium with their grandmother for the day.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct amount of advertising dollars the local tourism bureau spends.

Tennessee visitors spent more than $20 billion last year, setting a new record for tourism in the state and in Hamilton County, according to U.S. Travel Association numbers released Tuesday.

Gov. Bill Haslam announced the record $20.7 billion in direct visitor spending at the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, stating every county saw more than $1 million in visitor spending last year. Hamilton County hit $1.1 billion in direct visitor spending — a 4.6 percent increase over 2016 — putting it behind only Davidson County with $6.5 billion, Shelby County with $3.5 billion and Sevier County with $2 billion. Knox County also had about $1.1 billion in tourism spending.

some text Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Susan Clark and Terry Kuhn of Decherd, Tenn., check out the otter exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium on Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Thursday was Clark's and Kuhn's first time visiting the aquarium.

In 2016, Tennessee saw $19.3 billion in visitor spending total.

"Counties, cities and rural communities work hard to make our state a premier destination, welcoming visitors from around the world," Haslam said in a statement. "Our state's second biggest industry continues to see outstanding growth, break visitation records, boost Tennessee's economy and create new jobs."

Officials with the Chattanooga Visitors Bureau said Tuesday that based on the first six months of 2018, they anticipate meeting or exceeding 2017 figures this year to achieve another record year for tourism spending.

"Our role at the CVB is to focus on continuous and never-ending improvement to the visitor experience," said Candace Litchfield, marketing and public relations manager for the visitors bureau. "We're fortunate to have another successful year where we've seen significant growth in the number of visitors and related spending."

Tourism growth continues in 2018

Keith Sanford, president of the Tennessee Aquarium, said he thinks 2018 is shaping up to be as good if not better than last year with the addition of more hotels and restaurants. Ten hotel projects in downtown Chattanooga are either under construction or on the drawing board with news that more lodging is planned.

Sanford said the aquarium works closely with the local tourism bureau and the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development to aggressively market Chattanooga.

"Our success and the city's success go hand in hand," he said. "We continue to reinvest in our experience in order to remain one of the nation's best aquariums ... We want to ensure that we reach and attract as many travelers, groups, events and conventions as possible."

Ruby Falls is feeling confident about tourism in Chattanooga with the unveiling of a 10-year, $20 million expansion in June.

President Hugh Morrow said the attraction has seen sustained growth and continues to add new employees to the workforce with additional full and part-time jobs.

"Tourism growth in Chattanooga has an important role in generating additional tax revenue for the City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County and the State of Tennessee," he said in a statement.

Susan Harris, president and COO of See Rock City, said 2017 was a record-breaking year and the attraction is seeing "compatible" numbers so far in 2018 with company officials optimistic heading into the Labor Day weekend.

Harris said they are also pleased with the economic impact and growth of Clumpies Ice Cream Co. to the Southside and the rebranding of Riverview Inn on Lookout Mountain. Rock City acquired Clumpies in 2013 and Riverview Inn this year.

"We've also seen growth in the number of full-time partners (employees) we have who are citizens of the greater Chattanooga area and impacting our local community as an economic driver in this way, in addition to the visitors traveling here to see us," Harris said.

Visitors help fill tax coffers

With no state income tax and a high sales tax compared to other states, Tennessee relies heavily on tourism dollars. State and local sales tax revenue reached $1.8 billion statewide, marking a 7.6 percent increase over 2016. Figures include domestic travel only.

Hamilton County saw a 3.7 percent increase in state tax revenue at $65.9 million and a 3.1 percent increase in local tax revenue at $24.8 million in 2017. The county also reached $208.6 million in payroll, a 5.8 percent increase over 2016 and a 1.6 percent increase in tourism-related employment to nearly 9,000 workers.

The CVB released a new advertising campaign earlier this year targeting more visitors to come to the area with a new tagline — Chattanooga "In a State of Joy." The local tourism bureau spends about $3.6 million of their roughly $8 million budget on advertising and program expenses, and a majority of that comes from the county hotel and motel occupancy tax given to the tourism agency. Occupancy tax collections rose 60 percent in the past 10 years from $4.5 million in 2008 to $7.6 million last year.

The Governor's Office said they are working on providing more in-depth numbers for each county, which should be available by mid-September.

Contact staff writer Allison Shirk at ashirk@timesfreepress.com, @Allison_Shirk or 423-757-6651.

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