Return to the Great Smoky Mountains: Gatlinburg


New attractions like the “tree-based” family adventure park Anakeesta are appearing along Gatlinburg’s main thoroughfares. / W.C. Mann

GATLINBURG – Right in the heart of Gatlinburg’s tourist district the main road forks, and in the fork sits the iconic (at least to us hill country enthusiasts) Mountain Mall.  On Nov. 28, 2016, the mall’s general manager Brian Myers lost his home on the outskirts of the city to the wildfire that destroyed 2,000 structures in Sevier County, but when he was finally allowed to return from the ordered evacuation a week and a half later, he found the mall unscathed.

Examination of maps showing fire damage reveals something amazing: despite so much devastation to outlying neighborhoods and resorts, the heart of Gatlinburg was largely untouched.  There was some loss: Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts lost two buildings, and the Gatlinburg Sky Lift was shut down for more than six months by the loss of its upper terminal.  All that damage, though, was to parts of those complexes away from the main drag, and most businesses along that route were, after washing off a thick layer of ash, ready to reopen.  But where were the tourists?  Information released by the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors’ Bureau showed that tourism revenue was 36.5 percent and $19 million lower in Dec. 2016 than in Dec. 2015.

There is no desire on anyone’s part to belittle the awful personal toll the fires took on the lives of Sevier County residents, but tourism is the lifeblood of this region, and fewer tourist dollars mean slower recovery.  Healthy tourism means a return to normal life for the people of Gatlinburg.

While touring the city, I had the opportunity to speak with Myers in his office at the mall, and his statements echoed comments I heard from numerous business owners and managers, as well as local officials. 

“There’s no doubt that there’s been some decline (in tourism),” he said.  “It’s still early in the season, and year to year fluctuates anyway; so it’s hard to tell specifically how much of an effect it had.  But it’s hard to deny that it’s had an effect. 

“One thing we’re discussing a lot is that a lot of the losses were in places like the Westgate resort and the rental cabins, and things like that.  With fewer beds to sleep in, especially in the higher-end lodging, we’re losing some of the customers that tend to spend more.”

For Myers and others, the problem is mainly perception.  Television and internet news broadcast horrific scenes of motorists fleeing for their lives through gauntlets of flame and falling trees, and of hotel guests watching in terror as flames reached the very doorsteps of their lodges.  And then it was over.  The people who put so much effort into publicizing the horror didn’t do a very good job of telling the rest of the story.

“It’s hard to fight the sort of negative publicity that you get when something like this happens,” said Myers.  “I lost my home in the fire, and was temporarily living in Knoxville.  And even as close as Knoxville, people I’d run into would say, ‘Is there anything left of Gatlinburg?’  It’s hard to get out the word that most of it’s still here, that there was very little damage downtown. 

“We were all evacuated out of town, and couldn’t even get back in to check on our businesses or our homes for 10 days.  The news cycle goes through so fast, by the end of those 10 days, the rest of the world had forgotten about us.  It was hard to fight that publicity you get, when it’s all over the news that Gatlinburg is gone.”

I spent the day in Gatlinburg with my family, and was determined to go back the next day, as we simply ran out of time and energy to do everything we saw and wanted to do.  I can attest that Gatlinburg is not gone; in fact, it’s growing.

At familiar landmarks like the Mountain Mall, Space Needle, Hillbilly Golf and Ober Gatlinburg, it’s business as usual.  The arts and crafts community east of town was preserved intact.  The Sky Lift, severely damaged in the fire, reopened last week.  More recent attractions like the Aquarium of the Smokies and multiple other Ripley’s venues just seem to keep expanding their offerings.  New life is even appearing: Jimmy Buffet is building one of his Margaritaville resorts right downtown, and a new chair lift near the aquarium will soon take visitors up Anakeesta Mountain to a family adventure park of the same name, where they can enjoy aerial activities like ziplining in a treehouse-themed setting.

The numbers may be down, but people are coming, and the numbers are on the rise.  After December’s losses dragged on into the first quarter of 2017, April and May saw an upswing in tourism.  Based on my experiences, that trend should only continue. 

Gatlinburg, I can attest, is back; not that it ever really went away.  It’s still vibrant, it’s still fun, and for those of you who know it the way I have come to know it over the years, it’s still Gatlinburg.

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