Skip to main content

WNC Business

The nation's most visited national park benefits WNC gateway towns

Jun 08, 2024 02:43PM ● By Randee Brown

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has the distinction of generating more visitor spending and subsequent economic output than any other unit of the national park system, according to the National Park Service’s Tourism Analyst Donald Leadbetter.

The 2022 Visitor Spending Effects report, a collaboration of the National Park Service and the US Geological Survey, stated 12.9 million park visitors spent an estimated $2.1 billion in local gateway regions while visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This spending supported a total of 32,600 jobs, $1.2 billion in labor income, and $3.3 billion in economic output across the Park’s gateway communities.

In 2021, the total economic output of the park was $1.8 billion, demonstrating a 45% year-over-year increase between 2021 and 2022, the most significant yearly increase to date. The majority of the $3.3 billion in economic output directly affected sectors including hotels, restaurants, recreation industries, and retail, and approximately 44% of that occurred in North Carolina.

Leadbetter said the record increase is likely due to a combination of two factors. The key source markets for the Park, the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida, all saw rapid population growth following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic was also a catalyst for the growth in outdoor recreation in general, and paired with easily drivable access for millions of people, visitation to the Park spiked.

“I'll also observe that while the park is clearly the central draw for the region and sits at the heart of the brand, "The Smokies" is a much larger destination that encompasses many communities in Tennessee and North Carolina,” Leadbetter said. “The combined marketing, promotion, and word-of-mouth generated by all of those communities, businesses, residents, and visitors keeps the area top-of-mind for many people when they're making plans for tourism, leisure, and recreation.”

Public Affairs Specialist Emily Davis said visitation surveys asking the primary purpose for visiting the National Park runs the gamut of possible activities. Some popular responses include hiking, scenic driving, and wildlife viewing, and many visitors feel they have a family connection to the park.

“A number of people have a very strong family tie here,” Davis said. “They keep coming back year after year, and want to bring their children to share their experiences. Those that come for a one-time visit often realize there is so much to do and see, they end up coming back too.”

According to the Great Smoky Mountains’ Foundation Document, one of the reasons people enjoy visiting the Park is the opportunity for solitude and unconfined recreation. With 848 miles of maintained trails throughout the park, the remoteness and lack of development can engender a strong sense of solitude in visitors and allow ample opportunities for a primitive type of recreation.

There is a historical and cultural element to the draw of the Park as well. It contains one of the largest collections of 19th century remnants, a testament to the rich Appalachian folk history of the region. There are also preserved Cherokee and other Native American archaeological sites throughout the Park’s wilderness.

Davis also noted that many visitors make a stop in the Park as a part of their larger “Smokies experience.” She said with so many activities in the Park’s gateway communities, people make an entire vacation out of experiencing all the area has to offer.

Local communities are highly involved in the Park’s activities, according to Davis, and this was the idea when the Park was originally established. As there are no businesses operating within the park, the gateway communities provide services like lodging, food, and beverages. Businesses directly supporting Park activities have been established, including shuttle services to hikers adventuring on point-to-point hikes.

“Having a national park in a local community is a huge economic benefit,” Davis said. “National parks are tremendously popular. Visitors come from across the country and around the world, and it creates an enormous return on investment for these communities.”

Photo credit: NPS