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Visitation Decline at Great Smoky Mountains National Park Has Area Businesses, Residents, and Governments Worried


Fall colors peak in early- to mid October in the southern Appalachian highlands, drawing hordes of leaf-peeping tourists to the region’s national parks. Will there be as many leaf peeping visitors this year? Photo by
strongbad1982 via Wikipedia.

It’s becoming clearer that attendance has declined in many national parks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the busiest of the flagship National Parks, reports 5% lower visitation at its main entrances. High gas prices are the apparent cause.

Now that the summer peak in national park visitation has passed, park officials are poring over monthly attendance figures and related data to gain a clearer picture of salient trends. While visitation is stable or even bullish in some parks, such as Yellowstone National Park, there is mounting evidence that attendance declines may be the norm. David Barna, the National Park Service’s Chief of Public Affairs, has said that there’s been a slight decline in visitation this year for many parks throughout the country, probably due to the spike in gas prices. Blue Ridge Parkway, for example, is down on the order of 5.4%.

The Park Service expects that international visitors, taking advantage of the cheap dollar, will blunt the downward trend to an important degree. It is estimated that international visitors (mostly Europeans) now account for a whopping 15% of total national park attendance, and a much higher percentage than that at some parks.

Attendance for the flagship parks is of special interest because of the large numbers involved and the correspondingly large implications for important things like visitor spending in the gateway communities.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the busiest of the flagship parks. Annual attendance, which peaked at ten million in 2000, has recently been about nine million. Now the monthly attendance data show that visitation via the park’s three main entrances – Gatlinburg and Townsend on the Tennessee side, and Cherokee on the North Carolina side – is down 5% for the year. An extrapolation of this trend yields about 250,000 fewer visitors than last year.

This is bad news for area business interests, residents, and governments. When park attendance rose to ten million in 2000, area businesses enjoyed nearly two-thirds of a billion dollars ($650 million) in trade. Capital investment grew, new jobs swelled the employment rolls, and increased tax revenues flowed to the municipal, county, and state governments. Though attendance subsequently declined, it has appeared to stabilize in recent years. Now the downward trend, apparently caused by higher gas prices, has everybody nervous. When will attendance stop dropping? Will it return to normal soon?

Attendance and visitor spending statistics for next month should provide very important information. Great Smoky has a very asymmetrical monthly attendance profile, with highest visitation in June, July, August, and October. The attendance spike that occurs in that latter month reflects the magnetic pull of fall colors, which reach their peak during early-to mid October in the Southern Appalachians (see accompanying photo).

It's certain that hordes of leaf peeping tourists will converge on Great Smoky and Blue Ridge Parkway next month. But will there be as many this year? Will they spend as much money at area businesses?

Lower gas prices should help produce a strong leaf peeping turnout this fall, as will the anticipated more showy display of fall colors. While drought and excessive summer heat led to early leaf drop and a short leaf-peeping season last year, [url=/2008/08/fall-colors-what-can-we-expect-across-national-park-system]
this year’s fall colors in the southern Appalachians[/url] promise to be much prettier and longer lasting.


While I may agree that gas prices have created a downturn, I believe that climate change is another great contributor. The Smokies are just not what they used to be.

I grew up in Knoxville, a stones throw from the GSMNP. Even though I now live in Texas, I still visit the Smokies nearly every year because my mother still lives in the area. Over the years I have noticed a serious degradation in the air, resulting in a corresponding decline in the views.

There is a big difference between the misty clouds and fog which gave the Smokies their name, and the kind of poor visibility that occurs today. It changes the nature of what you have to try and enjoy. Instead of hiking along the Appalachian Trail and enjoying the distant vistas now muddled with dirty air, I'm more likely to enjoy the creeks and forests at mid-elevations. It's still good at times, but the number of good days are a lot less than they used to be.

If the government is worried about the tourist decline, maybe they should be a little more worried about the air.

Good point, SMH. I went back and tweaked the article.

Bob - if there's a silver lining in this story it's that experts are predicting (as Kurt mentioned in his Fall Colors post) above-average leaf color this fall for the Southern Appalachians. Last year, the fall color season in the Smoky Mountains region was muted due to the extreme drought and the above average temperatures during the summer and fall. I would suspect that leaf peepers will want to make-up for their losses from last year.

Furthermore, motorists are starting to see some relief at the gas pump. The trends for gas prices are pointing downward for the foreseeable future (assuming no major disruptions in oil production).

I think the Smokies should see a nice bump in visitation during the fall season, although the annual numbers will still be below last year's numbers.


My observation is in direct opposition to Mr. Cureton. My family moved to Gatlinburg in 1942. I grew up there, leaving in 1960 after college. The visibility in the 50's and 60's was good in October but not so good in other months. Now, having moved back in 1996, the days of outstanding visibility in mid-summer, Spring and December/January are much more prevalent. than during my youth. There were almost never clear days in June/ July in those days. My home overlooks Mt. LeConte so I have a nice vantage point.

Leo Benson III

Question: is there an increase of GSM visitors during leaf season? That's when I managed to visit the park, and it was absolutely spectacular! I remember hiking up some mountain under the canopy, and hitting the top, and seeing acres and acres of brilliant color. Took my breath away, it did.


My travels through the National Park System:

Yes, Barky, there's a very distinct attendance spike in October. The GRSM attendance data for the most recent five-year period (2003 through 2007) show that average visitation in October is 1.13 million, while September visitation averages 883,000. October visitation actually exceeded both September and August visitation in all five of those years.

So, I realize that this is not good for businesses however I bet the resources are seriously enjoying the break!! I was in the Smokies again this year and was mortified (once again) to see visitors chasing a Black Bear, trash on the highly visited trails and people just having no respect for nature. I know it is important for people to connect with nature but maybe this was a nice break for the bears, rivers and mountains!

I was disappointed to see that Alaska got the same color on the leaf-color map as South Florida. I"m guessing that's because Alaska's leaf color peaks even before Late September - but surely they could have had their own color for that!

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