Travel officials optimistic about summer season

By Joe Edwards

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 27 2011 4:05 p.m. MDT

FILE -This undated file photo courtesy of The Dollywood Companies shows the Barnstormer at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. The Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., has a new ride that park namesake Dolly Parton is "plain scared" to ride. In Nashville, famed for records and rhinestones, the raucous downtown honkytonks are prepared to serve cold beer and hot songs.

The Dollywood Companies, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge has a new ride that park namesake Dolly Parton is "plain scared" to ride.

In Nashville, famed for records and rhinestones, the raucous downtown honkytonks are prepared to serve cold beer and hot songs.

But with gasoline flirting at $4 a gallon, will tourists come this summer?

Tennessee boasts of being within a day's drive of 65 percent of the U.S. population. The state has no beaches like Florida, few museums like Washington, D.C., and no casinos like Las Vegas.

Nevertheless, tourism officials are optimistic Tennessee's convenient location will pay off in travel dollars during the key vacation months that unofficially begin Memorial Day weekend.

"We see people coming here who could have gone on further," said Kim Davis, spokeswoman for the Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corp.

"Gas is just gas," said Steve Smith, owner of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Nashville. "People won't stay home."

Dollywood's new Barnstormer uses two pendulum arms to swing riders through a red barn at 45 mph and 81 feet into the air.

"It gives you the sense of weightlessness at the apex," park spokesman Pete Owens said. "It's like a very robust backyard swing."

Dollywood will have four festivals the rest of the year as a way to keep the customers coming.

"We're so close to so many metro areas," Owens said. "We're closer than driving to one of the coasts or down into Florida."

Bob Miller, spokesman at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said people are ready to travel. The state has up to 50 million visitors a year.

"They've tightened their belts for a couple of years," he said. "You can only hunker down so long."

The 500,000-acre park along the Tennessee-North Carolina border is the country's most visited national park, with 9.4 million annual visitors lured by scenic vistas, bears and nearby blocks of retail shops, T-shirt stores and miniature golf courses.

Knoxville's Davis expects tourists to reduce their travel time and visit the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and other attractions in the city.

"Our downtown is very vibrant," she said. "We come alive in the summer with a host of things for families to do any weekend."

Doug Browne, general manager of The Peabody hotel in Memphis, said his city is still recovering from TV images of reporters in waders during the Mississippi River flooding in early May.

"Fortunately the media has moved on to other things," he said.

Browne is still optimistic that travelers will fill his 464 rooms this summer at the self-proclaimed "South's Grand Hotel."

"I think more people have money than some people think," he said. "They've been holding back. They like to put the family in the car and enjoy their summer vacation."

Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, probably Nashville's best known honkytonk, has live music beginning at 10:00 every morning, "and by 11 we have a packed house, seven days a week," Smith said.

The bar's cooler holds 300 cases of beer, "and we need deliveries every day," he said. "We're the No. 1 seller of longneck bottles in Tennessee."

Tourism is a $14 billion-a-year industry in the state. More than 170,000 Tennesseans are employed in the travel business.

The state's plentiful interstates feed traffic across Tennessee. Interstate 40 is a major east-west route and Interstates 75, 65 and 24 carry traffic north-south, connecting the state to the Midwest and points south.

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