Internet Travel Monitor - Industry News

March 15, 2017

Wildfire in 2016 Shouldn’t Deter Groups from Visiting Great Smoky Mountains,
Park and Tourism Officials Say

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Great Smoky Mountain National Park
    “We get calls every day from people asking whether they should put off visiting the Smokies this year.”

    That observation from Dana Soehn, spokeswoman for America’s most visited national park (11.3 million visitors in 2016), underscores how coverage of last November’s wildfire in and around the park lingers in people’s minds and why local travel industry leaders are working to show that the Great Smoky Mountains are ready for visitors.

    The Chimney Tops 2 fire was dramatic, big and fatal (17,000 acres, 2,400 structures damaged or destroyed, 14 fatalities). Making sure consumers and the group travel industry understand the aftermath is the current challenge for the region’s tourism industry and the National Park Service.

    The response to the “should we wait” question Soehn and others receive is a resounding invitation to come enjoy the park and its gateway communities.

    “There is no reason to wait. Come see this beautiful park, which is a remarkable gift to everyone in the eastern U.S.,” Soehn told a group of writers from the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association.
The ridge-to-ridge scenes visitors expect in Great Smoky Mountains National Park remain an impressive sight.

Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism and chairman of the Smoky Mountain Tourist Development Council, said he wants group travel leaders to understand three points:

  • The visitor portions of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville were untouched by the fire. That includes the Dollywood theme park, which is Tennessee’s most visited commercial attraction.

  • The core of Gatlinburg’s business district survived intact and was operating within days after the fire was out.

  • The fire affected only 11,000 of the national park’s 522,000 acres (about 2 percent). The fire’s other 6,000 acres were outside the park, and that’s where homes and businesses burned. No historic buildings in the park were burned.

Inside the national park, the fire created a mosaic burn pattern. About 7,000 acres experienced low impact, about 3,000 acres had moderate impact and only about 1,000 had severe impact, according to Rob Klein, a National Park Service fire ecologist.

Some of the high-impact areas are quite visible from overlooks near the Chimneys, a towering rock formation visible from the highway to Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome, two popular destinations for motorcoach groups.

Motorcoach passengers easily could fail to notice areas of low or moderate impact, and plant succession already has begun. Daffodils planted by mountain residents before the park was established in 1934 were blooming in early March, and trilliums were emerging next to charred tree trunks. Park officials said most visitors wouldn’t realize a fire hit those areas in just a few years.

If the fire had a positive outcome, it is that scientists have new opportunities to study the effects of a major fire in an eastern forest.

“Great Smoky Mountains National Park already was the most researched national park in the U.S., and scientists have baselines for comparison (on many research topics) from before the fire,” Klein said, citing topics such as effects on wildlife, effects on plant communities not accustomed to fire and causes of this fire’s spread pattern.

“Scientists reached out to us probably on Day 2 after the fire was out. They said this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study a fire like this,” Soehn said.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Daffodils mark locations where pre-park settlers lived. They emerged this spring in places of low and medium fire impact.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park
    According to Joy McNealy, Pigeon Forge’s senior sales manager, most groups that come to the region enjoy the spectacle of the national park from a distance and then use step-on guides for scenic drives. The park is a part of itineraries that also feature visiting attractions such as Dollywood, dining at group-friendly restaurants such as the Old Mill and the Apple Barn and shopping at Tanger Five Oaks and specialty craft locations such as Arrowmont.

    “All of those places – and many more – are ready for motorcoaches to roll into their parking lots,” McNealy said. “I encourage group tour leaders to contact their Tennessee friends in the industry. This is a great year to visit us.”
Approximately 1,500 black bears live in the national park’s 522,000 acres. The fire touched only 11,000 acres in the park.

By Tom Adkinson
Special to Internet Travel Monitor

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