1/25/2012 - Smokies park looks ahead
by Randall Dickerson - AP
NASHVILLE, TENN. -- Great Smoky Mountains National Park remains the busiest of the nation's parks by far, despite a drop in attendance last year.
Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said park officials are looking at new ways to draw visitors. The 500,000-acre forested park on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line drew 9,008,831 visitors last year, down a half-million from 2010.
The park topped 10 million visitors in 1999 and 2000, and it averaged about 9.3 million visits a year from 2006-10. Park officials believe 2010 got a bump because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, with about 9.5 million visitors.
A massive advertising campaign on behalf of Gulf Coast beaches likely dragged down the 2011 numbers.
A spokesman for several commercial attractions in the Smokies foothills agreed.
"All national parks are down, so the Smokies are no exception. I think this year, people just decided to stay closer to home," Rick Laney said.
Laney said the massive advertising campaign designed to lure travelers back to the Gulf Coast had an effect.
Inside the park, any decline is imperceptible, Ditmanson said.
"We're a busy place, and our facilities and our resources are impacted by a lot of use," he said, then added "That's OK. We like people"
Different visitors have differing expectations and needs from their time in the mountains.
"Even today when people come it could be solitude; for others its' a hike to Laurel Falls," Ditmanson said, noting that's a 1-mile walk on a paved trail. "For some of our population, that's as much a wilderness experience as someone else who hikes 10 miles into the backcountry."
While some people drive into the park and aren't bothered that their smart phones signal "no service," others feel disconnected from their electronic world.
There could eventually be an app for that. Ditmanson said the park and its supporting foundations are thinking about applications that could be loaded onto cell phones before the service fades out and called up to direct and inform visitors. The Great Smoky Mountains Association already does podcasts that can be accessed at visitor center book stores in the park.
"The new Oconaluftee Visitors Center opened last year on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, and visitation there increased dramatically," said Holly Scott, of the Friends group, which put $500,000 toward educational exhibits for the center.
The Great Smoky Mountains Association contributed $3 million to build the center.
"Park partnerships remain critical to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to ensure it's a destination for folks to come back to," Scott said.
Those partnerships help support educational initiatives. The superintendent noted that the Appalachian Highland Learning Center on the North Carolina side of the park and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in the Tennessee portion are attended by between 5,000 and 6,000 middle school and high school students each year.
Ditmanson also said the Smokies remains the most-visited national park by a large margin.
"You could take any of the next two or three (parks) and add them together and we still have more sheer numbers, he said.