Mountain tourism hit by national park shutdown

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 11, 2013 

SCITECH_FIREFLIES_02

Becky Nichols, an entomologist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, shines a red light onto a male synchronous firefly near the park’s Elkmont campground.

JOHN D. SIMMONS — jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

The closure of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the federal shutdown cost the region $33 million in lost tourism, according to an analysis released Friday.

The study looked at visitor spending in 18 North Carolina and Tennessee counties surrounding the park during the first 10 days of October after the partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

That period is normally prime leaf viewing season for tourists.

Not this year, and business owners are hurting, said Steve Morse, director of Western Carolina University’s Hospitality and Tourism

“This is a critical time in October. It’s their last big push for sales, anything from food service restaurants, souvenirs, retail,” Morse said. “The fall foliage season is a Southern tradition.”

Morse was traveling in the area Friday. He said people can drive through the park from Gatlinburg, Tenn., to Cherokee, but can’t get off the main road, U.S. 441.

“Everything else has yellow barricaded cones, trail heads for hiking are barricaded off, visitor centers are closed, bathrooms are closed, the camping areas have been evacuated,” Morse said. “It is empty.”

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation’s most visited, with 9.68 million people a year. October is the third biggest month, after July and June.

Small business effect

Morse estimated that the park’s closure has resulted in $12 million in lost wages for workers, $1.8 million in lost taxes in the two states and $1 million in lost local taxes.

But the biggest impact will be on mom-and-pop restaurants, shops and hotels, Morse said. “The effect has been on small businesses. Most tourism-related spending is in small businesses.”

The estimates were based on economic impact studies and data on visitor spending by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service in 2011.

The study focused on recreation park users – campers, hikers, cyclists, recreational vehicle travelers and others but does not include those who merely drive through the park.

Economic impact was measured within a 60-mile radius, including eight counties in Tennessee and 10 counties in North Carolina – Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Madison, Mitchell, Swain and Yancey.

Morse estimated that in the first 10 days of the government shutdown, 369,000 people who would have visited the park were unable to do so. The hit was bigger for Tennessee, which has major gateway towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. North Carolina counties experienced $9.27 million in lost visitor spending during the time period.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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