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Winter tourism up in WNC

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

As Shelli Milling of Georgia unpacked her minivan she watched her two sons play in the snow at Maggie Valley’s Jonathan Creek Inn parking lot.

“It’s our first trip to Western North Carolina,” Milling said as she pulled out a digital camera from her purse to take a picture of her kids.

The Millings decided after Christmas to venture to the mountains for a three-day vacation and planned to hit the slopes at Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley. Several family friends recommended the ski area to the Georgia family, which prompted them to plan the short winter vacation.

Hotels in Maggie Valley were booked New Year’s Day with visitors planning to ski or snowboard, most counting on a weather forecast that predicted several inches of fresh snow in the Smoky Mountains.

“We were booked last night (Jan. 1) because people thought we were going to have snow,” said Marie Allen, front desk clerk at the Comfort Inn in Maggie Valley.

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The 68-room hotel usually has a few vacancies during the winter months, but over the past several years it has seen a steady increase in business.

“It has definitely without a doubt increased,” Allen said. “We’re just slow on the weekdays cause the kids are in school.”

On the weekends during the winter, lodging facilities in Haywood County — and particularly Maggie Valley — are typically filled with skiing enthusiasts.

Jeff Smith, owner and operator of Jonathan Creek Inn, says the winter months are lucrative for his 44-room inn.

“January and February are profit months,” he said. Smith purchased the inn 12 years ago and has been transforming his facility to meet winter guests’ needs by adding amenities such as additional hot tubs, fireplaces, and an enclosed pool.

“The winter guests are looking for something different than the summer guests,” he explained.

Since converting his inn to cater to winter tourists, Smith says he has definitely reaped the benefits.

“We’ve been booked every night since Christmas,” he said.

Cataloochee Ski Area plays an important role in Maggie Valley’s winter business success. The ski area starts making snow in early November and plans to remain open until the end of March.

One of the biggest factors for the longer ski season is Cataloochee’s continuing upgrades to its snow-making equipment.

“We make snow at any opportunity we are given,” said Chris Bates, Cataloochee Ski Area general manager. Whenever the temperature drops to 32 degrees or lower, workers at Cataloochee are out on the slopes working the snow guns.

Also attracting winter tourists to the area is the partnership between the ski area and local hotels. The ski area offers several programs like the “Kids Ski for Free” or “Drive, Slide and Stay.” Both are enticing deals for avid skiers or snowboarders.

“For 10 years we’ve been doing this, and it’s a great package for families that can get away on the weekdays,” Bates said.

Smith participates in all of the ski area’s partnerships with the lodging community, which he says helps attract guests to his resort.

“The ski area is a phenomenal source of income for the town,” said Smith.


Winter getaway

Attractions such as the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, Cataloochee Ski Area and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino are among the tourist destinations that are drawing visitors to Western North Carolina during the winter months. The increase has had a marked effect on the tourism industry in particular and the local economy in general.

Not too long ago, things were different. For instance, before the opening of Cherokee’s casino 10 years ago, businesses in the Qualla Boundary’s downtown district went into hibernation after October, closing down until late spring, said Brad Walker, who is general manager of the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Cherokee and the mayor of Bryson City.

“Since the casino, business in the winter time has been better than it’s ever been,” he said.

Like Maggie Valley, Walker said lodging facilities in Cherokee still struggle with filling rooms during the winter weekdays.

The influx of visitors to the casino has allowed Cherokee business owners to become somewhat dependent on the steady winter income. Businesses are now set in their ways, Walker said. “If we didn’t have the casino, you would hardly have any business this time of the year.”

“The shops are staying open longer all year round,” said Darlene Waycaster, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.

Waycaster says that businesses are changing their attitudes about the winter season because more people are visiting.

“I think a lot of people come into the area to stay in a cabin or hotel just to relax,” she said.

The increase in visitors has organizations creating various events for tourists to participate in. In Cherokee the Festival of Lights, which started in 2006, returned this past Christmas season because of its popularity and success.

“It helps drive people to the shops and gives them something to do,” she said.


Planning for winter

The increasing number of visitors during the winter months has area tourist destinations planning more winter activities, which should in turn attract even more visitors. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City is one of WNC’s winter tourist destination success stories.

In 2004, the railroad started offering the Polar Express train, where visitors make an imaginary journey to the North Pole on a train. It is based on the popular book and movie.

Since it started the Polar Express excursion, the railroad has seen a tremendous increase in passengers, said Roxanne Marshall, GSMR marketing director. In 2004, the railroad had 28,000 passengers ride the Polar Express. By 2007 the number grew to 47,000.

By providing a family-oriented event, Marshall says the train ride is a memorable experience for people of all ages.

“People are making this an annual tradition,” Marshall said. “It’s something the whole family can participate in.”

The days of the railroad closing its doors for the winter season are long gone. Marshall says the benefits of having the railroad operational all year have not only helped their business but is also a boost for area hotels and restaurants.

“It’s great for the community,” she said. “It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

Swain County Economic Development Director Ken Mills echoed Marshall’s remarks about the railroad’s recent winter success.

The Polar Express has made an impact, Mills said. In addition to the railroad’s popularity, Swain County has also seen a recent influx of vacation rentals being built. Both of these attractions have had a significant impact on the county’s hotel tax, he said

Visitors pay a 3 percent tax while staying at a hotel or vacation rental. The money is used by the county to promote tourism. In November 2004 the county collected $8,226 from visitors staying overnight in lodging facilities. This number jumped to $22,541 in 2006.

“We tripled in just those few years,” he said. “After 2003, we saw a difference in winter tourism. The numbers just started shooting up.”


Winter Fun

The inch of fresh snowfall during the holidays attracted visitors and locals to Soco Gap along U.S. 19 for some sled riding fun. The open hills near the entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway had children and parents dressed in winter gear enjoying an afternoon of sled riding and making snowmen.

Blue Ridge Parkway Ranger Don Coleman spent the majority of Jan. 2 supervising sled-riding enthusiasts.

“This time of the year we see a lot more people outside,” he said.

Coleman, who has been a parkway ranger since 1993, says more visitors are spending more time outdoors during the winter season.

There are hikers and cross-country skiers going to popular places like Graveyard Fields and Shining Rock, Coleman said. Before it would mostly be hunters roaming around these areas. Both of these hiking sites are located along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park has also seen an increase in visitors during the winter months.

Bob Miller, GSMNP management assistant, says that the park has seen a big jump in visitation during November to March, the park’s off-season.

In 1996-97 the park had 2,060,000 visitors from November to March. This figure jumped up by 20 percent in 2006-2007 to 2,460,000.

According to Miller, one of the factors contributing to the increase in visitors is that the park facilities are being renovated to meet visitors needs during the winter. Also, the park has also changed it workforce in order to meet visitor’s needs. The park is now hiring employees to work all year instead of just a nine-month stint.

“We are not as seasonal as we used to be 15 to 20 years ago,” Miller said.


Not just for the outdoors enthusiasts anymore

Western North Carolina is considered to be an outdoor enthusiasts haven, but not all who venture here come for the outdoor experience.

“There is active visitation throughout the year now — it’s not just concentrated in the fall and summer,” said Dale Carroll, the CEO of AdvantageWest, an economic development agency operated for the western region of the state by the N.C. Department of Commerce.

According to Carroll, more tourists are traveling to the area to visit various museums and other heritage sites. Several initiatives — such as HandMade in America, which focuses on the craft industry, and the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area designation, which emphasizes cultural attractions throughout the mountains — have helped. Many tourists who come to the mountains for these activities visit year-round.

“One reason why we have year-round visitation is because of this network of theme visits, which expands tourism because there’s additional offerings for people to do,” Carroll said.

Matthew Newsome, manager of the Scottish Tartan Museum in Franklin, says the museum’s visitation numbers have been up.

“Winter is definitely our slow season, but over the past couple of years visitation has picked up,” Newsome said.

Newsome says the museum’s Web site has help promote the facility to tourists. “We have a lot of visitors that come to the museum when they are close to the region,” he said. “I think more people are becoming more aware of WNC activities.”


Hunkering down

But there are still some mom and pop businesses in the mountains that suffer through the long cold winter months. Many restaurants close their doors early each night because of the lack of business, which has been the case for the Dillsboro Smokehouse in Jackson County.

The restaurant changes its hours during the winter months because of the lack of customers. The restaurant switches to winter hours right after Thanksgiving and will remain on that schedule until the end of April, said manager Barbara Banes.

The winter season also has Salty Dog’s Seafood and Grill in Maggie Valley operating with a minimal staff because of slow business.

“It’s usually like this,” said Chasity Rathbone, bartender and server. She has worked at the restaurant for over a year and says that that the restaurant survives off of locals dining out during the winter season.

“It helps us out a lot when it’s like this,” she said.


A changing attitude

With more visitors coming to Western North Carolina during the winter, mountain towns are starting to change their attitude about the winter season. The idea of turning into a ghost town for five months because of heavy snowfalls, poor road conditions and the lack of tourists just isn’t true anymore.

“People can hike and go horseback riding in winter and take part in winter sports,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Better road conditions also allow people to come into the area and not be hassled with icy and snow-covered roadways. The Department of Transportation is doing a good job in getting the roads prepared before bad weather, Collins said.

Additionally, WNC’s location to surrounding places like Asheville, Brevard and even Gatlinburg, Tenn., allows tourist to make it a central hub to visit other destinations.

“A lot of people make us a base and venture out in WNC,” Collins said.

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