Faculty members at Western Carolina University should not be surprised if students cast their eyes skyward in the early afternoon hours of the first day of classes for the fall 2017 semester – Monday, Aug. 21. That’s because Cullowhee is smack-dab in the direct path of a celestial phenomenon christened The Great American Solar Eclipse.

When the entirety of the moon passes in front of the sun and completely covers it, plunging the campus and surrounding areas into darkness for nearly two minutes beginning at 2:35 p.m., it will mark the first total solar eclipse visible in Cullowhee since July 20, 1506. Scientists say to mark your calendars for the next one, which will occur Oct. 17, 2153. Doing the math, that’s 136 years away, which is why professional astronomers, amateur sky-watchers and the local travel and tourism industry are excited about this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Enrique Gomez, WCU associate professor of astronomy and physics, has witnessed two total solar eclipses in his lifetime – in Mexico City in 1991 and in Austria in 1999. “I can testify this is a thrilling event that can attract people from thousands of miles away, even from abroad,” Gomez said. “I expect we will be getting many people, perhaps thousands, from major nearby metropolitan areas to our region to experience this event. We could potentially see the population of the western counties double for one day.”

Gomez and Steve Morse, director of WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Program, are serving on a task force of people from across Jackson County working to plan events around the eclipse and to prepare for a probable influx of people, one that has the potential to have a large impact on the region’s tourism economy.

“The eclipse could be considered a one-time event that can be used as an economic development tool to showcase the area’s appeal to first-time visitors,” Morse said. “Tourism is sometimes thought of as a ‘first date’ for potential business owners, college students and retirees buying second homes. It provides a measure of whether it is worth a ‘second date’ and a stronger possibility of attracting someone to make a longer term investment in the area.”

The economic impact of the eclipse will be greatly enhanced if tourism officials can convince visitors to come to the region for more than a day by encouraging them to “make a weekend of it” and attend other events, Morse said. Local economic development officials are in the process of trying to do just that.

“Jackson County is a prime viewing spot given its location in the mountains, the number of affordable accommodations for people to stay, the number of viewing sites, the natural beauty and recreational opportunities, combined with the events we are planning for the eclipse weekend,” said Nick Breedlove, director of the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority. “We’re hoping that people not only visit for eclipse-related events but also get to know our small mountain towns and outdoor recreational opportunities. We have many hikes and waterfalls, great farm-to-table restaurants and unparalleled scenic beauty for people to experience alongside the once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Among the possibilities on the itinerary include outdoor concerts Friday, Aug. 18, in Sylva and Cashiers; a crafts festival in Dillsboro on Saturday, Aug. 20.; a moonlight run Sunday, Aug. 20, in Cullowhee; live music, entertainment, food and panel discussions at various locations across the county Aug. 21; and educational opportunities throughout the weekend at WCU and Southwestern Community College.

Just how many people may be headed to town? Good question, says Julie Spiro ’98, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “It would be difficult to predict with any certainty the number of visitors that might come to Jackson County to enjoy the eclipse,” Spiro said. “Whatever the number, we’ve learned from other small towns that have experienced similar events that you really have to work cooperatively with your emergency management team to ensure that visitors and locals alike have the opportunity to safely enjoy the phenomenon and the festivities.” Public safety officials from across the region are now having those conversations, she said.

Speaking from experience, Gomez says the region can expect eclipse-chasers to travel from other continents to experience a total solar eclipse. “The 2017 eclipse is unusual in that it cuts through or near so many major population centers in the U.S., and many people will travel hundreds of miles to experience it. There hasn’t been an eclipse like this in this part of the country since 1970,” he said. “There are towns in Missouri, Southern Illinois and Kentucky that are expecting and preparing to host hundreds of thousands of people. We are close to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is a high profile location for the eclipse, and there will be tens of thousands of people from the Atlanta and Charlotte metropolitan areas who will come.”

The wild card of the weather also makes it difficult to predict how many out-of-towners to expect, Gomez said. “We will not know what to expect until the day of the eclipse. People will be making plans to see an eclipse at a particular location, but they should also be ready to hop in a car and travel far to be able catch it,” he said.

Adding another layer of complexity is the fact the eclipse will occur on the first day of classes at WCU. Friends and family members helping the freshman class of 2017 and other students on move-in weekend may find the majority of available motel rooms in Jackson and surrounding counties already have been gobbled up. In other words, book those rooms now, Morse said.

Regardless of how many people flock to the area for the eclipse, they should use special solar viewing glasses to avoid damage to the eyes from the sun’s intense rays, which will not be blocked by the moon.