MEMPHIS – International visitors to Memphis were a rarity for much of the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even so, Memphis Tourism did not slow down its worldwide promotion of the city with international representatives stationed throughout the world including Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
Central to the international representatives' efforts is marketing Elvis Presley's Graceland, which has attracted international visitors to Memphis for the past four decades. Memphis Tourism CEO Kevin Kane said the organization kept the international representatives onboard throughout the pandemic.
Now, with COVID-19 restrictions loosened both locally and internationally for visitors, Kane believes the city is in a prime position to reap the rewards of its work during the pandemic.
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"A lot of cities suspended that (international marketing efforts) … we did not," Kane told The Commercial Appeal, part of the USA TODAY Network. "We kept promoting and representing Memphis in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the UK, and Europe during COVID ... even though we knew that no one was able to travel here. So it's not a question of us, you know, trying to get something started, we never stopped as far as promoting Memphis to our international audiences."
Memphis Tourism is hoping the new "Elvis" movie directed by Baz Luhrmann can build on the recent momentum and work to increase international travel to the city.
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An estimated 278,000 international tourists visited Memphis in 2019, according to Oxford Economics, with the major origin markets including Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and Japan. The projected economic impact of Memphis international visitors in 2019 was $109.8 million. That was the most recent data provided by Memphis Tourism, the last full pre-pandemic year.
"We are so excited about this 'Elvis' movie, we think it will be a billboard for people to want to come to Memphis and to experience Graceland for themselves," Kane said in a previous interview.
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New 'Elvis' movie a boost for international tourism in Memphis
The "Elvis" movie is a biopic of the Memphis icon and cost Warner Bros. an estimated $150 million to make and market ahead of its June 24 North America opening. The movie is expected to be a summer blockbuster.
Memphis Tourism's marketing of the movie includes a new slogan – "See the Film, Live the Legacy" – developed by Memphis Tourism to connect the dots between the movie's Australia-built recreations of Beale Street, Graceland and other destinations to their local inspirations.
Most Memphis Tourism international representatives dedicate a certain amount of time each month to promoting Memphis. There is one full-time Memphis Tourism employee who is in Australia/New Zealand, which is another promotional tool for the nonprofit because the "Elvis" movie was filmed in Australia.
A dedicated movie website page also offers a guide to Lauderdale Courts (Elvis' childhood Memphis home), Humes High School (Elvis' alma mater), and other landmarks in his Memphis life.
"Obviously Graceland and Elvis is a big hook for us outside the United States," Kane said. "I mean, let's face it. Memphis and Elvis are synonymous, and it resonates very strongly through all of our research around the world ... It's (the new movie) just really a promotion for Memphis and kind of puts Memphis in front and center in people's minds."
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More than 60 print, broadcast, and digital media writers and personalities from the U.S. and such countries as Brazil, Taiwan, Canada, and Mexico were in Memphis the weekend of June 11 for an advance screening of the film and promotional event at Graceland. The event – designed to spread the word about the movie, but also put a spotlight on Memphis – included appearances by the movie's stars Austin Butler and Tom Hanks, among others.
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Bringing international visitors back to Graceland, Memphis
Joel Weinshanker, a managing partner of Graceland Holdings and majority owner of Elvis Presley Enterprises, said in a previous interview he hopes Graceland’s international visitor figures will rebound this year.
The site generates a local economic impact of about $150 million annually, according to Graceland. Along with its direct economic impact on Memphis, the attraction is also credited with establishing Memphis as an international tourist destination.
The Whitehaven tourist site is the second most-visited "museum home" in the U.S., according to Graceland. The first is the White House.
In a normal year, international visitors represent about 15% of Graceland’s 600,000 estimated annual visitors, Weinshanker said.
"When we look at our numbers, we’re creeping back very close to pre-COVID levels for American visitors," Weinshanker said. "Where we’re still lacking is the international (visitors) and what we’re seeing especially for Elvis Week (in August) are the internationals starting to come back. For Memphis to thrive from a tourism standpoint and for Graceland to thrive, we need those international guests."
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While Graceland may be the main international tourism draw, Memphis' notable attractions go beyond music including the National Civil Rights Museum Downtown.
National Civil Rights Museum President Russell T. Wigginton in a previous interview with The Commercial Appeal recalled a memorable anecdote in March with a dozen people from various countries waiting outside for the building to open one morning. Wigginton later declared it "international day" at the museum.
"It was a neat moment and kind of a reminder that we draw people to this city," he said. "We’re an economic driver for this city, and it’s just not regional. It’s not just national. It’s international."
Memphis International Airport traffic increases in 2022
Kane’s optimism is reflected in increased traffic at Memphis International Airport from 2021 to 2022, according to data shared by airport spokesperson Glen Thomas.
While the airport doesn't have data on international travelers, figures show an uptick in overall passenger travel in Memphis.
In May, more than 233,000 people passed through the TSA security checkpoint, which represents a 22.7% increase compared to May 2021, according to airport data, and only a slight 4.9% decrease compared to May 2019 prior to the pandemic. The TSA national throughput is down by 10.1% compared to May 2019, which means Memphis is outpacing the national average, Thomas said. The TSA national throughput is the number of passengers traveling through the U.S. in a given time period.
The percentage of seats filled on an aircraft has steadily increased in the first quarter of 2022, from 69.6% in January to 86.2% in April.
"In short, more people are traveling, and the planes are full," Thomas said. "We can only expect that to increase, as the above traffic occurred before the height of summer travel coupled with the easing of international travel restrictions."
Reporter John Beifuss contributed to this story.
Omer Yusuf covers the Ford project in Haywood County, residential real estate, tourism, and banking for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached via email at Omer.Yusuf@commercialappeal.com or followed on Twitter @OmerAYusuf.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: How 'Elvis' movie can bring international tourists to Memphis