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Shutdown irks tourism industry on the eve of leaf season

The tourism industry in Western North Carolina is not letting the shut down of visitor facilities on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or national forests in the region darken their spirits as the mountains head into the busiest tourism time of the year.


Tourism leaders — chambers of commerce directors, visitors center staffers, waitresses shop owners, and hotel workers — are busy battling misconceptions about the national park and forest closures in an attempt to keep visitors coming to the region. Some tourists believe they won’t even be able to drive through the Smokies or along the Parkway to see the leaves change, the main reason visitors come to WNC this time of year.

“That is probably the number one question ‘Is the road closed?’” said Karen Wilmot, head of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce.

But, that’s not true. Yes, the trails are closed, as are the visitors centers, picnic areas, campgrounds and historic sites — and perhaps most importantly, the restrooms — but the main road through the Smokies, U.S. 441, can still be traversed.

“Just make sure you do all your stopping before you head across,” Katie McGugan, an employee at Quality Inn of Cherokee, is telling people.

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McGugan added that the casino is the number one attraction for most of their guests anyway.

But the Smokies are certainly a main attraction for guests at the Chalet Inn in Whittier, and the shutdown could put a damper on their plans.

“That is certainly going to impact our visitors,” said owner George Ware. “Hopefully, there is enough things that will keep guests busy.”

October is the busiest month for the bed and breakfast, and it’s nearly booked up. So far, no one has called to cancel, but it could be too early to tell the impact, especially since it is unknown how long the shutdown will last — a couple days or weeks.

Ware said he believes the biggest impact won’t be those who canceled existing reservations, since they are probably geared up and excited about their trip already, but those who had yet to finalize their plans may now stay away.

“I do think if it goes more than a day or two, it will impact people who have not made reservations,” Ware said.

The fact that leaf lookers can still drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway and through the Smokies, even though none of the facilities are open, is a big deal. And there’s plenty of hiking available in the national forests alongside plenty of scenic drives on backcountry roads.

“Even on a worst case scenario, we still have plenty of scenic drives for people to do,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. “Nobody should alter their plans because of this.”

The TDA is sending out email blasts and posting to social media sites, letting people know that Western North Carolina is still open for business.

“We are just encouraging travelers to still travel,” agreed Julie Spiro, head of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “There are lots of other things that we offer in this county that aren’t affected.”

Examples include fly fishing on rivers in WNC, visiting Whitewater Falls near Cashiers and boating on Lake Glenville.

And, of course, there are leaves to be seen everywhere.

“We are going to have fabulous fall color,” Wilmot said. “There is still so much to see and do, you may not even miss it.”


Keeping Positive

Before the shutdown, Western Carolina University Hospitality and Tourism professor Steve Morse was predicting an increase in tourism this October. However, he’s now tempering that forecast in light of the shutdown.

“The economic impact of the important October travel month could be jeopardized by public perception of the shutdown of Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Morse said

Nonetheless, the WCU-conducted study anticipated 3.5 percent increase in room nights this October in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties. Macon County is expected to see a 2.1 percent increase, according to the study.

This year has already been a trying one for some in the tourism industry who rely on the traffic coming through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A landslide on U.S. 441 blocked traffic through the Smokies for four months, choking off the flow of tourists. Now, if the government shutdown hurts Smokies visitation, it will be a double whammy in one year.

“This is a hardship that we did not need at this time,” Wilmot said. “There is potentially a lot of damage to be done.”

Wilmot heard reports from the Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit that operates stores in the park, that it could lose $50,000 a week until the national park reopens.

One group that could benefit from the closure of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is private campgrounds. Those being forced to pack up and leave national park and national forest campgrounds are now hunting for private campgrounds.

At Happy Holiday RV Village in Cherokee, Debbie Hobbs began getting calls Tuesday morning from campers being evacuated from the Smokies.

“It is going to help us. That’s for sure,” she said.

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