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Knoxville tourism business continues recovery from pandemic, rising to near-top booking spot

Experts said Knoxville was among the top 5 booking markets for 2021 alongside cities like Atlanta, Nashville and New York City.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Many people in Knoxville may remember a time when it was barely a dot on the map. But now, the city is getting national attention as one of the hottest spots to visit.

Experts ranked the city among the top 5 booking markets across the U.S. alongside cities like Nashville, Atlanta and New York City. As more people stop by The Scruffy City, they are also bringing in revenue for the area's tourism industry.

"We just came off two months of the highest tax collections from the hotel-motel tax that we've ever had as a community," said Kim Bumpas, the President of Visit Knoxville.

He said more people stopped by Knoxville to attend events and festivals. Officials also said that tourism brought more than $1 billion in spending during 2020. Compared to the previous year, Knoxville also saw a 40% increase in the number of people booking hotels.

The growth is coming after a particularly frightening time for the travel industry. 

"At the beginning of 2020, how business was — there was no business," said Ken Knight, the general manager of The Crown Plaza Hotel in downtown Knoxville. "Now, a lot of corporations don't have people traveling yet, but the weekends are extremely busy."

Some people are stopping by for the natural parks, while others look forward to attending an event in the city. Others say they have family nearby and just want to see them again after staying away during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're just excited that everything's opening back up and that we're able to stay here," said Melissa Papell, who said she is in Knoxville to celebrate her daughter's birthday while she is studying at UT. "We typically stay here, even when we come in for the weekends."

While weeks may still be a little slow compared to the weekends, business leaders also said that the difference between last year and this one is significant.

"It's night and day," said Knight. "Business is probably back to around 80% of where it was pre-pandemic."