Hospitality, tourism students predict uptick in summer tourism revenue

Dark storm clouds sometimes hover over the Smoky Mountains on summer afternoons, but WCU students are predicting a sunny season for the Western North Carolina tourism industry.

As the summer travel season gets underway, a new study conducted by students in Western Carolina University’s Hospitality and Tourism Program indicates that stable gasoline prices and improving economic conditions should contribute to an increase in tourism-generated revenue across Western North Carolina.

Students in a senior-level capstone class taught by Steve Morse, economist and director of the Hospitality and Tourism Program in WCU’s College of Business, analyzed eight years of hotel room demand trends using data supplied by Smith Travel Research, a leading source of information for the hospitality industry, to develop their summer tourism forecast for 21 counties of WNC.

The students examined a variety of data including summer month occupancy rates, average daily occupancy rates and the number of room nights sold in five regions of WNC, said Morse. The students then based their summer tourism forecast on patterns for travel demand and trends for travel across the mountains, he said.

“Two main factors will affect travel across Western North Carolina this summer,” Morse said. “First, gas prices are stable from one year ago and are expected to remain stable during the months of June, July and August. Second, the unemployment rate in the U.S. is 4.4 percent, the lowest in the last five years, including in large metro feeder markets of travelers to our region such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Tampa, Birmingham and Knoxville. Simply put, people with stable jobs in stable economies travel more.”

In addition, a rare celestial phenomenon that will occur over a narrow swath of WNC is expected to provide a late-season boost, he said. “The total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 in the counties of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Macon, Swain, Jackson, Haywood and Transylvania will generate many first-time tourists to the region and cap off a successful summer travel season for the region,” Morse said. It will be the first total solar eclipse in the continental U.S. since 1979.

The students’ predictions for the WNC counties:

Group 1: Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties – A 4.5 percent increase in summer 2017 travel compared to the summer months of 2016. Among the reasons for the increase, the students said, is the second year of the Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino in Murphy and the continuing popularity of Graham County attractions of Tapoco Lodge and Fontana Village.

Group 2: Haywood, Jackson, Transylvania and Swain counties – A 1.9 percent increase in summer 2017 travel compared to the summer months of 2016. Among the factors are the addition of a new themed steam engine trip at Swain County’s Smoky Mountain Railroad, Jackson County’s popular N.C. Fly Fishing Trail, the continuing draw of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort along with new bike and hiking trails in Cherokee, and a burgeoning array of music and arts activities in Waynesville’s downtown, the students said.

Group 3: Avery, Ashe, Wilkes, Alleghany, Caldwell and Watauga counties – A 2.8 percent increase in summer 2017 travel compared to the summer months of 2016. Contributing factors include proximity to a wide variety of state and national parks and forests and the outdoor opportunities they provide, the class reported.

Group 4: Yancey, Mitchell, Madison, McDowell and Burke counties – A 0.3 percent increase in summer 2017 travel compared to the summer months of 2016. Stable gas prices will continue to make this area popular with outdoor enthusiasts along with new features at Tweetsie Railroad and other nearby attractions, the group said.

Group 5: Buncombe and Henderson counties – A 3.5 percent increase in summer 2017 travel compared to the summer months of 2016. The students point to a wide variety of musical acts taking the stage at the summer 2017 Biltmore Concert series, to Asheville’s growing craft beer and restaurant scene, and to a large number of musical events and festivals throughout the summer months in Asheville and Hendersonville.

“With Western North Carolina being home to two of the most visited national park units in the U.S. in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway and with the enduring popularity of the Pisgah, Nantahala and Cherokee national forests, visitors will continue to make our region a top choice for summer vacations while enjoying our unique historical and cultural assets that define our region,” Morse said. “Summer tourists want to experience our natural resources and discover our cultural, music, historical and handmade craft assets that make Western North Carolina a memorable family summer vacation.”

The summer tourism forecast is part of a series of reports about travel trends in the mountain region provided by Morse and his students. For more information about WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program, visit the website hospitalityandtourism.wcu.edu. For a copy of the tourism forecast report, call 828-227-3386 or email Steve Morse at scmorse@wcu.edu.