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The governor promised 'Tennessee on Me,' but less than a quarter of those eligible took taxpayers up on it

Officials said 2,292 packages were sold, meaning Tennessee paid $451.57 for each tourist who took advantage of the program.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tourists used less than a quarter of allotted airline vouchers in Governor Bill Lee’s controversial “Tennessee on Me” program, which cost taxpayers more than $1 million dollars, the state said.

The program promised $250 airline ticket vouchers to 10,000 tourists who booked certain two-night stays at participating hotels in Tennessee’s largest cities. Visitors used less than a quarter of the allotted tickets, the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development told 10News. 

The state said it spent nearly $350,000 dollars to try to attract travelers and, according to the Associated Press, also paid Instagram influencers to promote the program.

All told, the state said it spent $1,034,998 on the airline vouchers, marketing costs, and production expenses — including for the governor’s video announcing the program, which featured county music superstar Brad Paisley. 

Paisley was not paid for his participation in the announcement video, the state said.

"Tennessee on Me helped our state stand out as a first-choice destination for those considering travel, and helped our hotels and businesses get back on their feet with an immediate return on investment," Department of Tourist Development spokesperson Amanda Murphy said. "We know once a visitor comes, they spend money in our restaurants, our shops and at our tourist attractions."

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Tourists used a fraction of the available airline vouchers — 2,292 packages were sold — meaning Tennessee paid $451.57 for each tourist who took advantage of the program, calculations based on data from the department showed.

Knoxville was the second most popular destination behind Nashville, with 523 bookings under the program, said President of Visit Knoxville Kim Bumpas. She views it as a success. 

"Whether people participated in the program or not, they saw it, they engaged with it and it really told them why they might want to travel to Tennessee another time," Bumpas said. "This program will pay off for years to come in ways that can't be tracked." 

The program launched the weekend of July 4 came with certain stipulations. Tourists had to book a two-night stay, including a day Sunday through Wednesday, in participating hotels in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga or Knoxville. After criticism, the program was later expanded to include the Tri-Cities. 

In exchange for booking a hotel stay, the state gave tourists a $250 airline ticket voucher. The program ended on Dec. 31.