Visitation Decline at Great Smoky Mountains National Park Has Area Businesses, Residents, and Governments Worried
It’s becoming clearer that attendance has declined in many national parks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the busiest of the flagship National Parks, reports 5% lower visitation at its main entrances. High gas prices are the apparent cause.
Now that the summer peak in national park visitation has passed, park officials are poring over monthly attendance figures and related data to gain a clearer picture of salient trends. While visitation is stable or even bullish in some parks, such as Yellowstone National Park, there is mounting evidence that attendance declines may be the norm. David Barna, the National Park Service’s Chief of Public Affairs, has said that there’s been a slight decline in visitation this year for many parks throughout the country, probably due to the spike in gas prices. Blue Ridge Parkway, for example, is down on the order of 5.4%.
The Park Service expects that international visitors, taking advantage of the cheap dollar, will blunt the downward trend to an important degree. It is estimated that international visitors (mostly Europeans) now account for a whopping 15% of total national park attendance, and a much higher percentage than that at some parks.
Attendance for the flagship parks is of special interest because of the large numbers involved and the correspondingly large implications for important things like visitor spending in the gateway communities.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the busiest of the flagship parks. Annual attendance, which peaked at ten million in 2000, has recently been about nine million. Now the monthly attendance data show that visitation via the park’s three main entrances – Gatlinburg and Townsend on the Tennessee side, and Cherokee on the North Carolina side – is down 5% for the year. An extrapolation of this trend yields about 250,000 fewer visitors than last year.
This is bad news for area business interests, residents, and governments. When park attendance rose to ten million in 2000, area businesses enjoyed nearly two-thirds of a billion dollars ($650 million) in trade. Capital investment grew, new jobs swelled the employment rolls, and increased tax revenues flowed to the municipal, county, and state governments. Though attendance subsequently declined, it has appeared to stabilize in recent years. Now the downward trend, apparently caused by higher gas prices, has everybody nervous. When will attendance stop dropping? Will it return to normal soon?
Attendance and visitor spending statistics for next month should provide very important information. Great Smoky has a very asymmetrical monthly attendance profile, with highest visitation in June, July, August, and October. The attendance spike that occurs in that latter month reflects the magnetic pull of fall colors, which reach their peak during early-to mid October in the Southern Appalachians (see accompanying photo).
It's certain that hordes of leaf peeping tourists will converge on Great Smoky and Blue Ridge Parkway next month. But will there be as many this year? Will they spend as much money at area businesses?
Lower gas prices should help produce a strong leaf peeping turnout this fall, as will the anticipated more showy display of fall colors. While drought and excessive summer heat led to early leaf drop and a short leaf-peeping season last year,
this year’s fall colors in the southern Appalachians promise to be much prettier and longer lasting.