WCU study predicts fall tourism increase in Smokies region

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Steve Morse predicts a possible boost in October tourism in Western North Carolina, thanks to fall colors, expected low gas prices and strong local travel and tourism promotion.

As concerns caused by a temporary gas shortage on the East Coast ease, Steve Morse, economist and director of Western Carolina University’s Hospitality and Tourism Program, is predicting a possible boost in October tourism in Western North Carolina.

Morse analyzed data supplied by Smith Travel Research, a leading source of information for the hospitality industry based in Hendersonville, Tennessee. He looked at travel data from hotel rooms sold during October from 2010 to 2015.

His analysis predicts there could be an increase in tourism in WNC during the leaf color season because of overall lower gas prices, which could have a dual effect. According to the U.S. Energy Administration, gas prices in the southeastern states are the lowest in 12 years, averaging $2.01 per gallon. Plus, compared to last fall, gas prices are expected to be 7.9 percent lower. That decrease makes it cheaper to travel to the mountains, but it also leaves consumers with an extra $650 for the year to spend on fall vacations in WNC, Morse said.

“That represents an extra $650 to spend on extra hotel nights, visiting attractions and eating in restaurants in Western North Carolina,” he said. “One of the things you can’t control, of course, is weather. But I think overall we’ll see increases. Also, I think there’s been a lot of aggressive marketing by regional tourism groups, especially in Jackson County with new tourism director Nick Breedlove.”

The study divided 21 WNC counties into five regions, while three Tennessee counties were put into two groups.

The predictions for the North Carolina regions:

Region 1 – Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties: A 4.5 percent increase in tourism spending compared to October 2015 thanks in part to the one-year anniversary of Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino in Murphy and its 300-room hotel.

Region 2 – Haywood, Jackson, Transylvania and Swain counties: A 4.1 percent increase in tourism spending from last October. In addition to the Blue Ridge Parkway passing through these counties, increased fall entertainment options at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort and three WCU home football games in October will contribute to the increase, Morse said.

Region 3 – Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Watauga and Wilkes counties: A 3.1 increase in tourism spending from October 2015 because of the Blue Ridge Parkway and lower gas prices.

Region 4 – Burke, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Yancey counties: A 5 percent increase in tourism spending from last October because of the Blue Ridge Parkway and lower gas prices.

Region 5 – Buncombe and Henderson counties: A 3.8 percent increase over October 2015. Asheville and Hendersonville have new destination advertising and promotions programs, in addition to extending their media reach into new feeder cities. There also has been an increase in festivals and events around the growing craft beer industry and outdoor recreation, Morse said.

Because of those promotional efforts, and those by other tourism groups, Western North Carolina is building its brand and being discovered by more outdoor adventure enthusiasts who love rafting, kayaking, zip lining, mountain biking, rock climbing and hiking, Morse said.

The predictions for the three Tennessee counties:

Region 1 – Sevier county (Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville): A 4.3 percent increase in tourism spending from October 2015. Visitors will see new attractions and restaurants such as  Dollywood’s Dreammore Hotel and Resort, the Island at Pigeon Forge with its new Margaritaville hotel and restaurant and Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen, the new Rocky Top Sports Complex in Gatlinburg and new attraction and shopping opportunities in Sevierville.

Region 2 – Blount and Monroe counties: A 4 percent increase in tourism spending from October 2015. Increased promotion of the drive and fall colors of Townsend, Tennessee, in Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and along the Cherohala Skyway from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina, will lead to the increase.

For more information about WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program, visit hospitalityandtourism.wcu.edu. For a copy of the tourism forecast report, call 828-227-3386 or email Morse at scmorse@wcu.edu.