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WNC Business

Explosive tourism in WNC's High Country

Apr 18, 2023 01:04PM ● By Randee Brown

Beech Mountain

Tourism is a critical piece of the economy for the town of Beech Mountain, according to Kate Gavenus, Director of Tourism and Economic Development. She said whether visitors come for short visits or long stays, year-round residents would not be sustained without them.

Since the pandemic, Beech Mountain has seen an increase in visitors that the town can hardly manage, according to Gavenus. “It was mostly skiers in the past, and people have now caught on that the summer here is lovely as well,” she said. “It rarely gets above 80 degrees, and that’s a commodity.”

Gavenus said that the town’s infrastructure wasn’t built to sustain an influx of 10,000 to 30,000 visitors. The town needs more water and sewer capabilities and more roads to be able to accommodate both the tourists as well as people moving into the area.

“People come here on vacation and stay,” Gavenus said. “Some are bringing along their knowledge and expertise. There are now over 60 businesses in town across sectors like construction, trades, cleaning services, and food and beverage. It’s becoming a more diverse town, and that wasn't always the case.”

Beech Mountain is not a market that has a lot of hotels, according to Gavenus. She said that many properties have become short-term rental homes, and in 2022, there was a total of $24,492,101 in gross receipts in the lodging industry.

Gavenus said she has sought out certain businesses at times, and that it is important to keep a balance of offerings for visitors that fit the community needs as well as the commercial space that is available. “There are not a lot of shovel-ready properties here,” she said. “We are also mindful of encouraging entrepreneurship and businesses that can come in and hire between two and 20 people pretty quickly,”

The town is also working on itself as a product, improving landscaping, lighting, sidewalks, and trails. Gavenus said that through their Parks and Recreation department, they have 27 miles of trails. “Outdoor recreation is what we really have to sell, and we must put dollars into making it the best we can,” she said. “Building Outdoor Communities has projects currently going on, and anything related to outdoor activities, equipment, or supplies is being very encouraged in both Avery and Watauga Counties.”

Blowing Rock

Executive Director of Tourism at the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority Tracy Brown also said that outdoor recreation is a driver of tourism for their town.

Brown said that people visit Blowing Rock for trout fishing, wintertime snow activities, Grandfather Mountain, and Tweetsie Railroad. He also said that the Blue Ridge Parkway is by far the largest tourism driver, as it is located about halfway between Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, making it a great place to stop and get some rest.

“No one really knows the exact number of people that come through here,” Brown said. “It’s about 2 million, and they contribute about $1 billion just from visitation across the High Country’s five-county area. Damn near 100% of those visitors are getting on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Parkway absolutely drives international visitors as well.”

Visitation peaked in Blowing Rock in 2021, but rates are starting to slip, according to Brown. He said despite that, visitor numbers are still 40% above where they were in 2019, and if they slipped another 10% to 20%, that would be okay too.

“Businesses are okay with things slowing down a little,” Brown said. “Some were having a hard time meeting the demand. More visitors are more demanding and expect more of the town while businesses have less bandwidth to deal with issues. Supply chain issues, skyrocketing prices, and maintaining staff are some of the things that make it tough.”

Like Gavenus in Beech Mountain, Brown said that they are working with businesses that inquire about coming to the area. He said that working with a Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation initiative called Blue Ridge Rising, gateway communities to the Parkway are coming together to talk about business recruitment and steer economic development to get the right types of businesses in place.

“We need support businesses like restaurants for the visitors and locals alike,” Brown said. “Many people want to come here and do short-term rentals, and frankly, we’ve already got plenty of that. We have to be mindful about what the community needs rather than what someone wants to do.”

Blowing Rock is also creating more infrastructure to support the influx of visitors and new residents. Brown said that they are looking at increasing parking solutions and boosting the town’s Wi-Fi systems.

One of the challenges for the town is that visitors are staying, pricing locals right out of their own market. “Affordable housing is no longer a big city problem,” Brown said. “We are looking to get some guidance from places like Vail, CO. Because of the shift that happened, people no longer need to live near corporate headquarters, so they are relocating to places they like to travel to. Now, people are moving here from places like San Fansisco, CA and paying cash for houses that are easily going for $1 million.” 

Photo source: Todd Bush Photo