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TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) — Tennessee’s new statewide tourism campaign is sparking some controversy in the Tri-Cities. Governor Bill Lee and country music star Brad Paisley teamed up to announce “Tennessee on Me,” a campaign offering ten thousand free airline vouchers to out-of-state tourists who book at least two nights at participating hotels in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville.

The push is meant to incentivize travel to the volunteer state, but the Tri-Cities was not included.

“Northeast Tennessee, the Tri-Cities Airport, the Tri-Cities region were blatantly excluded from this campaign and that’s extremely disappointing,” said Gene Cossey, executive director of the Tri-Cities Airport Authority.

Cossey says of Tennessee’s five commercial airports, only TRI was left out of the bid.

“This is a wonderful place to be, people want to be here and it is disappointing that that message isn’t being taken by the rest of the state,” said Cossey.

The office of Tennessee Tourism Commissioner Mark Ezell said “Tennessee on Me” was created to stimulate growth in the markets with the greatest need.

“Tax shortfalls for hotels alone were still down over $7 million in March 2021, fully attributed to the cities of Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga,” a spokesperson told News Channel 11. “In comparison, outdoor destinations continued to see active and increased tourism. While much of the state is seeing pre-pandemic or higher levels of hotel occupancy, challenges remain in our big cities who still feel the loss of conventions, business and international travel.”

Still, Alicia Phelps with the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association says our area could have benefited from being in on the 10,000 free flight vouchers.

“It makes a difference. We were impacted by the pandemic just like everybody else,” said Phelps. “It was still a little bit unfortunate to see that we weren’t represented and a part of that process.”

Phelps says Northeast Tennessee was averaging 911 million dollars per year in visitor spending pre-pandemic, and the area is still trying to recover from loss in revenue.

Tennessee Lt. Governor Randy McNally released a statement saying, “It makes little sense to limit the promotion to those cities when our rural areas were hit as hard, if not harder, by the economic crisis than those cities. I will be asking the administration and the Department of Tourist Development to provide more detail to the legislature about such initiatives during the budget process in the future.”

Local leaders in tourism want to share the message as much as they can that our region, though not metropolitan, has a lot to offer.

“It’s one thing that sets us apart from other areas in the state as well as the Southeast is just the raw, untouched, sustainable beauty of Northeast Tennessee,” said Phelps.

“We are one of the best places in all of Tennessee and I kind of wonder if the rest of the state is not a little jealous of us,” said Cossey.

Cossey added while the decision feels discriminatory, it is a chance to work harder to promote travel to our region.

“What I’m gonna do is encourage all of us to take on this fight on our own. If nobody is fighting for us, we have to fight for ourselves,” said Cossey.

From the Tri-Cities Airport, connections on American Airlines and Delta can get travelers anywhere in the world with just one stop. Cossey says having one of Tennessee’s five commercial airports in our region is a huge asset to travel and tourism.

“You don’t have long TSA lines, you don’t have hassles, most of the time you don’t even have a long wait getting on board the aircraft. It is a wonderful airport to fly out of,” Cossey said.

The governor’s budget designated $2.5 million to go toward promoting tourism through $250 digital gift cards from Delta Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines for travel to Tennessee. The promotion looks to give away 10,000 digital gift cards to visitors who book a two-night stay in a hotel to Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville.

Visitors can book between now and September and must visit before the end of the year. Over 60 hotels are participating in the tourism campaign.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office released a statement to News Channel 11 saying, “Tourism is Tennessee’s second leading industry and a huge economic driver statewide. This campaign will support the entire state’s continued economic recovery and workforce growth by encouraging tourists to not just visit Tennessee, but stay for several days and have time to explore local businesses and attractions beyond the four cities listed.”