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Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / A paddler rides the bow as a raft runs the "Torpedo" rapid near the end of the run on the Ocoee River.

Quick. Call the out-of-town relatives. It's not too late to invite Granny, Uncle Walter or your best friend for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

And Tennessee still will pay for the transportation.

"Tennessee on Me," the tourism campaign launched over the July 4 weekend to draw tourists to the state, will continue through Dec. 31.

The gig is that the state is offering 10,000 free $250 airline vouchers to out-of-state tourists for a minimum of a two-night hotel stay in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville or the tri-cities of Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport.

As of Oct. 18, slightly more than a fifth of the vouchers — 2,052 — in the $2.8 million campaign had been used.

"[Tennessee Department of Tourist Development] is happy with the results," Amanda Murphy, communications director for the department, said in an email. "The unique campaign helped Tennessee stand out and create awareness in a competitive marketing landscape during the busy summer travel season."

Our point when the campaign was announced was that the Volunteer State did not need to pay tourists to come here. They were doing so already.

Earlier this year, TripAdvisor announced Gatlinburg was the number-one trending travel destination in the United States on its U.S. Trending Destinations list. Another list by U-Haul this year said more people moved to Tennessee in 2020 than any other state. And a third list this year said the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the most visited national park in 2020.

And in August, the state announced it outperformed the national average in domestic and international travel spending in 2020 by more than 15%. Of course, the national average year-over-year spending in 2020 — due to the COVID-19 global pandemic — was down 42%. Ours was down only 31.6%.

The decline, of course, is why Gov. Bill Lee and the tourism department came up with the "Tennessee on Me" promotion. And because tourism is the state's second leading industry, bringing in $1.92 billion in state and local tax revenue in 2019.

The administration's thinking was that it could afford to spend $2.8 million to increase those tax revenues from two years ago and the $16.8 billion in travel spending in the state in 2020.

The promotion originally required booking by Sept. 15, but officials extended the deadline to the end of the year because of what Murphy termed "an unanticipated rise in COVID cases over the summer." Now, travel must be completed by March 31, 2022. They also added travel to Tri-Cities, the state's fifth commercial airport, to provide flexibility for tourists.

The state's largess does have its limitations.

Reservations require bookings that include at least one night of the stay from Sunday through Wednesday, nights that have been harder to fill because of the decline in conventions, business travel and international visitors.

"We continue to hear from hotels who are struggling to fill rooms mid-week," Murphy said, "and our goal is to help fill that void."

Travel from all 50 states, including Tennessee, or from international cities, must be booked through www.TennesseeOnMe.com, where prepaid, nonrefundable reservations at one of the more than 60 participating hotels will be made. Those hotels in Chattanooga are the Residence Inn (downtown), Chattanooga Marriott (downtown), Staybridge Suites (Chattanooga Convention Center), Fairfield Inn & Suites (Chattanooga), The Chattanoogan Hotel (downtown), Holiday Inn Express & Suites (downtown), Holiday Inn & Suites (downtown), Courtyard by Marriott (downtown), Hotel Indigo (downtown), The Westin (downtown), The Edwin Hotel (downtown), The Kinley (Southside), Aloft (Hamilton Place), Tru By Hilton (Hamilton Place), Embassy Suites (Hamilton Place) and Fairfield Inn & Suites (East Ridge).

Digital airline vouchers will be issued for flights to Tennessee on American Airlines, Delta Airlines or Southwest Airlines. Only one airline voucher is available per hotel package, not per person.

Lee originally announced the promotion in spots with country music star Brad Paisley. They drew the expected criticism from Democrats but also from a few leading Republican legislators, who questioned the strategy of paying people to come to the state and the lack of details disclosed at the time when tourism already was rebounding.

The $2.8 million campaign spent $120,000 to develop the social media spot, $200,000 on a social media buy and has $2.5 million reserved for the vouchers.

Although tourist officials say they are happy with the program's success, a large majority of the money set aside for "Tennessee on Me" has not been used. So pick up that phone and tell Granny and Uncle Walter there's still plenty of time for the holidays. If they'll spring for the hotel, Tennessee will pick up their travel.

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