7/14/2011 - Summer tourism season off to strong start in Asheville area
by Jason Sandford - Asheville Citizen Times
IT'S SUMMER IN THE MOUNTAINS OF WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA! Make your plans now while there's still room for you to roam here in the Asheville and surrounding areas! Seems like everyone is making a trip to see what we have in store for a fun-filled vacation!
MARSHALL -- The tourism tide is rising for Mike Hampton.
"We had probably the best Fourth of July weekend we've ever had, and we're very optimistic about the rest of the season," said Hampton, who helped about 260 people zoom down the French Broad River on Sunday through his work with French Broad Rafting Expeditions.
Hampton, who has co-owned the 31-year-old rafting company in Marshall for the past 10 years with his brother, Mitch, said reservations are up for the rest of the summer.
"I don't want to boast, but our company has seen growth every year despite the economy," Hampton said. "I think it's still affordable for a family, and people are staying closer to home."
Whether they're whitewater thrill-seekers, campers looking for a leafy getaway or camera-toting visitors looking to learn about the region's history, tourists have arrived.
Anecdotal reports such as Hampton's, early economic indicators and other factors, hint that Western North Carolina's tourism industry will do at least as well as last year and may well exceed it.
"My sense is that June was strong and that the Fourth of July weekend was strong," said Marla Tambellini, spokeswoman for the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Hotel sales in Buncombe County -- one key barometer -- have been positive for eight of the last nine months, according to the bureau, which is predicting a 5 percent increase in room tax revenue.
Hotel sales totaled more than $164 million last year, while the hotel occupancy rate hit 61 percent, last year. Those numbers are up from 2009 lows, but they have yet to rebound to pre-recession levels.
The San Francisco-based PKF Hospitality Research firm called for a 4.9 percent increase in demand for U.S. hotel rooms this year in a June report. The company predicted that average daily room rates paid by guests will increase 2.4 percent.
"We continue to be impressed by the pace at which travelers have returned to the road after the depths of the Great Recession," R. Mark Woodworth, president of the firm, wrote in the report.
Not all visitors to the mountains sought out a comfy bed in a downtown hotel. Nearly all 200 ca mpground sites were occupied over the Independence Day weekend at Asheville East KOA in Swannanoa, co-owner Vicki Gilkeyson said.
"I think people were just ready to get out start their vacations and gas prices were down," Gilkeyson said.
Rainy weather during the spring kept business down, but Gilkeyson said reservations through the rest of the summer and into the fall tourist season, are strong.
The great outdoors also continue to pull visitors to Cherokee, said Mary Ferguson, marketing and promotions director with Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
With easy access to scenic Blue Ridge Parkway drives, shady Great Smoky Mountains National Park vistas and stocked trout fishing on the Oconoluftee River, the area's seen strong visitation so far, Ferguson said.
"I checked with some restaurants, and they saw a real strong Fourth of July," Ferguson said, while local hotels have reported slight increases in hotel stays.
With Harrah's Cherokee Casino drawing thousands of visitors to its hotels, casino and resort, the area continues to build its reputation as a top Tar Heel attraction, Ferguson said.
While the area has featured cultural attractions in the past, the focus now has turned to touting the area as destination offering a little bit of everything, from first-class fly-fishing to an informative Native American heritage museum.
"I like to say we have it all," Ferguson said. "We just want people to come."
Other factors could also be lending a helping hand to WNC tourism. Harsh rip currents, shark sightings and wildfire smoke didn't make North Carolina beaches any less busy this year, according to news reports, but may have driven some visitors to the mountains.
Falling gas prices will also likely encourage more visitors. Over the holiday weekend, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded in North Carolina was $3.48, down from its high of $3.87 in May, according to AAA Carolinas.