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Tourism outlook for summer in Asheville is bright

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5/25/2012 - Tourism outlook for summer in Asheville is bright
by Jason Sandford - Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE -- The outlook for Western North Carolina's summer tourism season is bright heading into the Memorial Day holiday weekend, with falling gas prices, rising temperatures and ongoing national buzz about the region.

"Overall, I feel like we came through a strong winter and gas prices are now starting to come down now, so the tourism industry is pretty optimistic about what the summer holds for us," said Marla Tambellini, assistant vice president of marketing and public relations for the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Certainly this holiday weekend will be a good barometer for how the rest of the summer will shape up," she said.

Hotel occupancy has been strong over the past five months in Asheville but flattened out in April, with numbers about even with last year, Tambellini said. But the daily rate hotels are charging has been up, which indicates strong demand, she said. The visitors bureau plans to target four key markets -- Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham and Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point -- with a variety of advertising.

"We know we haven't tapped our potential in those areas, particularly in Atlanta," she said. "They continue to hold a lot of promise."

The tourism industry is a key economic sector for Western North Carolina, as well as for the entire state. Earlier this month, Gov. Beverly Perdue declared May 16 "Tourism Day" and noted that visitors spend more than $50 million a day in the state and contribute more than $4.3 million a day in state and local tax revenues as a result of their spending. Perdue said that for the first time, state tax receipts as a result of visitor spending last year came in at more than $1 billion. That number has increased more than 50 percent over the last decade.

One of the region's attractions banking on visitors' dollars is the venerable Flat Rock Playhouse, which bills itself as the state theater of North Carolina. The professional theater, which was recently awarded a $5,000 grant by the Henderson County Travel & Tourism grant committee, is in its 60th season. The theater draws thousands each year to its staged comedies, dramas and musicals.

"I firmly believe this is going to be a good summer for tourism," said Sharon Stokes, a spokeswoman for the theater. "Hopefully we'll see some record numbers."

Stokes noted recent action by the White House to establish a new national tourism strategy aimed at promoting U.S. destinations, as well as the massive exposure generated by the blockbuster "The Hunger Games." The movie, filmed in WNC's lush mountains last year, has drawn international interest from fans and others interested in visiting.

Aside from the Hollywood exposure, WNC has also continued to benefit from national publicity surrounding its reputation as a hub for craft beer. In the past couple of months, New Belgium Brewing, Sierra Nevada Brewing and Oskar Blues brewery all announced plans to build big new brewing operations in the region.

There's also high interest in the expansions of other well-known attractions, including Navitat Zip Line Canopy Tours and Harrah's Cherokee Casino. The zip line company in Barnardsville is adding three new mountain zips 2,000 to 3,500 feet long, some of the longest in the U.S. And the casino is finishing up an eight-year, $650 million expansion that has included the addition of 500 rooms in a new hotel tower, a 3,000-seat event center and thousands of square feet of added gaming space.

The other good news for motorists who may be making their way to the mountains is falling gas prices. An estimated 884,000 motorists are expected to be hitting highways this weekend, and they'll see gas selling for an average of $3.55 per gallon of regular, unleaded gasoline. That number marks a 36-cent-a-gallon drop since an April 6 peak of $3.91, according to AAA Carolinas.

North Carolina's average price is now 22 cents a gallon less than May 22, 2011, according t o the not-for-profit advocate for safety on the roads that provides automobile and insurance services. Abundant supplies, a weakened Euro due to financial uncertainty in the European Union, slower economic growth in China and no oil-related threats in the Middle East all contribute to the falling prices, according to AAA Carolinas.

"That bodes well for the summer travel prospects," said Tom Crosby, a spokesman for the organization.

"That, and it looks like it's going to be hot this weekend," he said. "The hotter it gets on the beaches, the better it is for you guys in the mountains."

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