Tennessee faces a challenging summer tourism season amid economic uncertainty and the aftermath of extensive flooding in Nashville.

Nashville-SkylineNASHVILLE — Tennessee faces a challenging summer tourism season amid economic uncertainty and the aftermath of extensive flooding in Nashville.

With the unofficial start of summer travel on Memorial Day weekend, tourism officials hope potential vacationers set aside worries about their next paycheck and images of Nashville under water.

Tourism is big business in the state. According to the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, the state has up to 50 million visitors annually. Tennessee is within a day’s drive of 65 percent of the U.S. population, making it a popular destination. Tourism has an economic impact of more than $14 billion yearly.

In Nashville, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum director Kyle Young had this plea for a reporter who asked about tourists: “Send ’em on. We’re ready.”

The capital city is trying to overcome the perception left by television news video of Nashville being submerged in early May after 13 inches of rain fell in two days.

The Smoky Mountains area doesn’t have that obstacle, just concerns about whether people have the money to travel.

In Pigeon Forge, officials are looking for a little rebound from a year ago when tourism revenue dropped 8 percent. It’s down 3 percent so far this year.

“People are expecting it to be not as bad as last year,” said Leon Downey, a spokesman for the tourism bureau in the Smoky Mountains resort town. “We’re not projecting a banner year, but I think people are going to take vacations, just try to save money any way they can.”

The Smoky Mountains area has 9 million tourists a year, drawn by the mountains and miles of miniature golf courses, T-shirt shops and various attractions.

“There is pent-up demand,” Downey said. “People are fed up with the economy.”

Neighboring Gatlinburg expects “leisure travel will slowly improve as the economy levels off and begins expanding again,” spokesman David Perella said.

In Memphis, Graceland expects strong business as Elvis Presley fans celebrate his 75th birthday year.

“They explore Americana,” said Kevin Kern, a Graceland spokesman, referring to the 600,000 who visit Presley’s home annually. “Graceland is a time capsule of 20th century culture.”

Nashville has the daunting task of continuing to attract 11 million visitors as it has in past years.

Most entertainment venues have reopened, but the sprawling Gaylord Opryland Resort will be closed at least three months because of flooding from the nearby Cumberland River. The Grand Ole Opry country music show has moved indefinitely to other venues because its legendary stage had four feet of water on it.

The city’s raucus downtown honky-tonks were busy last weekend as people crowded in to hear songs like “Crazy,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

“We are certainly prepared for a challenging tourism season, but we feel encouraged and optimistic,” said Young.

At the museum, where flood damage was minor, gate receipts returned to 70 percent within a week after power was restored from flooding that devastated five blocks of the downtown entertainment district.

Meanwhile, advance ticket sales for a Nashville music festival June 10-13 are 30 percent ahead of last year’s presale. Attendance ended up at 56,000 a day.

“We’re getting feedback that people want to support the city and still want to come,” said Scott Stem, a spokesman for the Country Music Association, the festival sponsor. “People are amped up.”

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Source: USA Today