Smoky Visits Down 10%, But Not to Worry

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September 1, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

A view atop the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

In this age of austerity, family trips to the great outdoors seem economical and invigorating, but the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, unfortunately, isn't feeling the love of budget-minded vacationers.

Visitation to the nation's most-visited park this year is down 541,654 — a drop of almost 10% — through July.

"It's important to first put the Smokies' visitation in perspective," said park spokeswoman Nancy Gray in an email to the Knoxville News Sentinel. "The park had two spike years in 2009 and 2010. The former was the park's 75th anniversary, which brought more people through." In 2010, Gray noted, a rockslide on Interstate 40 in North Carolina forced traffic through the park and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico possibly drove Southern vacationers to the mountains.

Based on National Park Service statistics, Deep South tourists may, indeed, have opted for the high country over the Gulf last year. Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola, Fla., saw a 16% drop in visitors in June and July 2010. As of July, this year's visitation to Gulf Islands had rebounded by 29% — an increase of 741,112 visitors — over last year.

"Economic factors could be playing a role in the decreases," Gray said, but noted that "the national park has seen increases in economic declines before since we are within close proximity to a large population base and we are a continuing value for families who to want get the most from an affordable vacation."

The head-scratching inexplicability of short-term trends is playing out regionally and nationally. The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area near Oneida, Tenn., has seen almost 12% fewer visitors through July while the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park has seen a 12% increase, helped, no doubt, by the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Nationally, park visitation is down almost 2.8 million, or 1.7%.

Don Barger, senior regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, sees the positives. Noting that the Smokies has, through thick and thin, stayed steady at a bit more than 9 million visitors per year since 2001, he said, "The park has maintained a consistency many businesses would envy."

"Great Smoky Mountains National Park continues to be the top tourist attraction in Tennessee year after year," Barger said. He cited costly gasoline and regional issues such as weather as potential explanations for any temporary declines.

"The long-term trend in visitation is amazing," Barger said. "From an institutional perspective, we don't see any slacking off of America's love affair with national parks."

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