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Smoky Mountain Tourism Thrives Amidst Seasons of Anomalies and Poor Economy

By Jeaneane Payne

newfound gap
Hwy 441 closed. Newfound Gap.
Photo by John Disque
clingmans dome road
Clingman's Dome Road closed.
Photo by John Disque
rock slide
I-40 closed
road construction
Road construction in Cades Cove.
Photo by Harrison Construction Company

Neither a poor economy or multiple natural landslides brought tourism in the Smoky Mountains down in 2010. As a matter of fact, tourism was up in most areas surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park during these "could have been" scenarios.

During a year of weather extremes, landslides, and major construction projects, Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitation in Calendar Year 2010 pulled through to match 2009 levels. Visitation through the Park's three main entrances and outlying areas in 2010 was 9,463,538, just slightly below 2009, the Park's 75th anniversary year which reported 9,491,436 visits.

At year's end, attendance at all of the Park's entrances except the outlying areas was ahead of 2009. Gatlinburg, Tenn., reflected a 2 percent rise; Townsend, Tenn., recorded a 3 percent gain; and Cherokee, N.C., showed a 5 percent increase. The outlying areas, comprised of 13 lesser-used entrances in North Carolina and Tennessee, tallied a 9 percent decrease.

"A number of anomalies occurred in Park visitation this year that may explain the visitor use patterns we received," said Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson. "Extreme weather in 2010 left its mark on Great Smoky Mountains National Park from a cold chilling winter to sweltering heat in summer," he continued. Above average snowfall in the high elevations caused more frequent closures of Newfound Gap Road and other Park roads January through March and then again in December. Both February and December marked record snowfall at Mt. LeConte (6,593 feet), 52 inches and 53 inches, respectively. Then during the summer months, a heat wave hit and the Park recorded a long string of 90-plus temperatures in the low country with August seeing above average highs. For the first time in several years, autumn foliage, attracting hundreds of thousands leaf seekers, peaked on time in October and not in November as in past years which may account for the changes recorded.

"Other occurrences that had both negative and positive influences on Park numbers during the first part of the year were several landslides on primary thoroughfares through the mountains both in and outside the Park," Ditmanson commented.

The most significant one was the landslide that closed all lanes on Interstate 40 at the North Carolina and Tennessee border from October 2009 through April 2010. During this impasse, travelers used the Park's Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) as a detour which most likely pushed April visitation up.

Meanwhile, the Park had a large number of major road construction projects which limited access to some Park roads and facilities throughout the year and played a part in altering visitor statistics. For instance, the Outlying Areas tally recorded double digit decreases several months during peak season when two significant secondary entrances were affected by construction on the Foothills Parkway (Cocke County) and Cherokee Orchard Road.

In the Pigeon Forge area, the cabin rental segment reported a 5% increase in sales over 2009.

Much of the success of tourism in the Smokies this year can most likely be attributed to tourists cutting back on more elaborate vacations to places such as Disney World. With the Smoky Mountains being within a day's drive of two-thirds of the population east of the Mississippi River, people can experience a vacation getaway here more economically. Their savings on gas and higher lodging rates in other areas makes a visit to the Smokies much more affordable.

The bottom line is that the Smoky Mountains has much more to offer than any other vacation area in the Southeastern United States all seasons of the year.

For more information on the Smoky Mountains, visit www.mysmokymountainvacation.com.

Published January 26, 2011

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