Five years after the forest fires, tourism is booming in the Smokies

GATLINBURG, Tennessee (WATE) – The tourism industry in the Smokies has more than recovered from wildfires that burned more than 11,000 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and killed more than 14 people in 2016 While this is evident from the traffic, we dove into the numbers and spoke to those who are still rebuilding years later.

Tom Goodwin, owner of Mountain Laurel Chalets, remembers the panic that ensued when the flames got out of hand in the mountains.

“We had a lot of desperate prayers and a rallying sense of our faith… hoping God would have spared some of the business,” Goodwin added.

Part of the business was spared, but 46 properties were set on fire. Goodwin is optimistic about the continued growth of the tourism industry in Sevier County.

“Gatlinburg is doing better than ever,” he said. “We are rebuilding and taking what was broken and making it into something new.”

His company makes their new rentals even bigger than the rentals they replace.

We met Goodwin on the site of one of his last completed rentals called “The Lodge”. It sits on the spot where a newly remodeled, mid-century modern two-bedroom house known as the “Deerview Trail” was destroyed by fire.

“For years and years people celebrated birthdays, honeymoons, baby moons and birthdays at this property and booked it years in advance,” he said.

Deerview Trail held a maximum of four people. He was sitting on an 8.5 acre property. Eight new properties, including The Lodge, will soon be established on the land. Together they will make up the Deerview Trail retreats and increase capacity from four to about 48.

We spoke virtually with Pam Hill, co-owner of Stony Brook Cabins, at one of the properties their company manages on Village Loop Road. It was completed in September 2019 and, like The Lodge, is also on the site of another vacation rental.

“It was so devastated,” Hill said. “It was really hard at that point to predict the progress that we made, to believe that they would come back and be bigger and better than ever.”

Hill’s business lost 15 properties to the fire, but has added 20 since 2016.

Marci Claude, public relations manager for the Gatlinburg Convention and Tourism Bureau, explained that demand increased after the fires and had not slowed since.

“We are a popular return destination for generations of families and they all wanted to help,” said Claude. “So we put the call out, the best way to help Gatlinburg right now is to come back for a visit.”

And they did.

State data shows visitors spent $ 2.2 billion in Sevier County in 2016, $ 2.3 billion in 2017, $ 2.6 billion in 2018 and $ 2.8 billion in 2019. As data shows visitor spending fell to $ 2.4 billion in 2020, Hill said it was Stony Brook’s best year ever, despite being shut down for a month at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figures for the first quarter of this year, she said, show this year is even better.

Claude attributes part of this success to the growing popularity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Figures from the National Parks Service support this theory. The NPS tracks the number of recreational visits to the park. Their reports show 11.3 million visits in 2016 and 2017, 11.4 million in 2018, 12.5 million in 2019 and 12.1 million in 2020.

This year’s monthly figures show the park will likely hit record numbers this year.

That’s why Hill is excited for the years to come.

“Prepare yourself, gang,” Hill said. “The numbers are going to keep going up and the Smoky Mountains are not going anywhere. The fires and the devastation destroyed the built, man-made structures, but the mountains are built by God and they are strong smoky mountains and they will be there for the foreseeable future.

Hill says their biggest problem today is finding enough employees to meet demand.

Recent figures from global hospitality analyst Star Reports show Gatlinburg’s hotel occupancy rate is up 13% while the national rate is down 9%. Claude said 1,200 new hotel rooms could be brought online in Gatlinburg within three to five years.

About Derrick Hill

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