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Smokies park gets record number of visitors

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1/22/2013 - Smokies park gets record number of visitors
by Karen Chavez - Asheville Citizen Times

BRYSON CITY -- Karen Wilmot sensed something in the air this past summer when she saw lines snaking out the doors of this Swain County town's eateries.

And she was right -- the county that is home to the eastern side of the Smokies was enjoying the benefits of a spike in tourism tied to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which last year recorded its highest visitation in more than a decade.

"Our occupancy rate was up over the previous year. I've spoken to many restaurants that have been very busy, sometimes with lines out the door, and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad had a very good year," said Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce.

"I can say the increase in visitation in Smokies had a positive impact on business in Bryson City. Any time you see an increase in the Smokies, you're going to see an increase in economic well-being in gateway communities."

With a half million acres of forested, mountainous terrain split between North Carolina and Tennessee, the park solidified its standing as the most popular national park, with nearly 9.7 million visitors in 2012, up 7.5 percent from the year before.

It is the highest number of visitors since 2000, when the park saw 10.1 million people, said Molly Schroer, park spokeswoman.

Just released 2012 visitation numbers also keep the Blue Ridge Parkway in the long-held No. 1 spot as most visited unit of the National Park Service, with 15.2 million visitors. The Smokies and the parkway also are in the top five national parks in terms of visitor spending.

Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, also a unit of the National Park Service, had a busier 2012, with 93,000 visitors, a 4.1 percent increase from 2011.

A combination of eye-popping scenery, mild weather and proximity to large population centers gave the Smokies its strong showing last year.

"It was mainly the mild weather during the winter and spring of 2012," Schroer said. "More people were able to travel into the park and be outdoors because of lack of ice and snow on the roads and trails."

The mild weather in the off-peak seasons and a warm summer set the tone for visitation as every month of 2012 saw an increase of visitors from those recorded in 2011.

December 2012 park entries were 1.9 percent higher than the previous year's December, with 480,527 visitors in 2012 compared with 471,603 in December 2011.

That increase came even though snow and ice forced a week-long closure of Newfound Gap Road between Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Cherokee.

But Schroer said the holiday season brought many visitors out to enjoy the park at the end of the month.

The findings were a little puzzling to Diane Cutler, co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles. After three strong years selling, renting and repairing bicycles for locals and visitors to the Smokies, Cutler's shop had a down year in 2012.

But she said since Christmas she is already seeing a rebound and is hoping to capitalize again in 2013 on the runaway popularity of the national park in her backyard.

Cutler said 80 percent of the bike shop's business comes from tourists looking to spend time at Tsali Recreation Area and in the Smokies.

"We were still in the black, but it was just down this year. Our little town is the regular, middle class tourist and I think those people, after four years, are saying, 'we don't have anything left, our discretionary income is gone,'" she said.

"But the day after Christmas, things started picking up. After feeling really scared through the winter, we're feeling really rosy about the upcoming spring season."

A 2010 Michigan State University study estimates that the Smokies had the largest local economic impact of any national park, with visitors spending more than $818 million in the gateway communities, such as Gatlinburg, Tenn., Cherokee and Bryson City. The study also estimates that 11,400 local jobs were supported by Smokies visitor spending.

The study, "Economic Benefits to Local Communities from National Park Visitation and Payroll, 2010," found that the Blue Ridge Parkway was the fifth highest in visitor spending, with $299 million.

Parkway visits affected by October weather

While the Blue Ridge Parkway visitation was tracking higher all through 2012, some nasty October weather caused a plunge.

Chief Ranger Steven Stinnett said the parkway, which has 469 linear miles that lie roughly half in North Carolina and half in Virginia, had 15.2 million visitors in 2012, down 1.2 percent from 2011.

"You're going to have slight variation from year to year, so a drop in 200,000 visitors spread out over the year, is not statistically significant," Stinnett said. "There was essentially no change."

The biggest drop in visitation appeared to be on the North Carolina side of the parkway, Stinnett said, which is about twice as visited as the Virginia side.

Susan Gonshor, chief of interpretation for the parkway, said that the parkway put up a sign on Interstate 40 last fall directing drivers to the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center, which she believes helped to increase visitation to the center near the intersection with U.S. 74A.

The parkway also increased its presence in local classrooms, sending rangers to teach school children about the parkway and conservation issues in an effort to attract more young people.

"We found that 70 percent of visitation is in 40-70-year-old age range," Gonshor said. "We are working on 'how can we get young kids to engage in the parkway, get them Tweeting about us, and meeting their friends on the parkway?'

What ultimately might have caused the drop in visitation appeared to be the uncontrollable -- Mother Nature.

Superintendent Phil Francis said visitation was up across the parkway through the end of September, then in October -- the high holy month in Western North Carolina for fall leaf peeping -- it dropped 7.8 percent on the Virginia side and 22.3 percent in North Carolina.

"We had a little snow in October and we had some closures toward the end of the month. We had ice and snow, some high winds and downed trees," Francis said. "October is the primary visitation month. It's an important month."

The parkway had 1.3 million visitors in October of 2011, and that dropped to about 1 million visitors in October 2012.

"I would say it's likely weather that caused the drop in October," Francis said. But, he added, even the weather couldn't topple the parkway from its longtime perch as the most visited site out of the 398 units in the National Park Service.

"We can see changes as a consequence of a smaller maintenance staff, things not being repaired as quickly, but we're doing the best we can," Francis said of the ever-shrinking Park Service budget. "Most people come for the views, and we've really worked hard to make sure our interpretive programs still exist, and we continue to cut our scenic vistas on a three-year cycle.

"We're still the most visited site in country."

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