Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Smoky Mountains National Park grows in popularity but is that a good thing?

The figures are in. America's most popular national park the Great Smoky Mountains National Park continues to grow in popularity with 9,416,734 visitors in 2006 - a 2% increase over 2005 but is this good news for the most loved national park?

This is the largest increase in visitors to the GSMNP in 5 years. Even higher gas prices didn't drive away tourists and locals from coming. Even the off season months are seeing huge gains some of which have broken previous national park visitor records but summer peak season was off compared to previous years. Leaf season which runs from September to November picked up the slack for the lower summer visitation numbers.

Camping within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is also on the increase with approximately 351,000 campers staying in both the frontcountry and backcountry areas of the National Park. Backcountry camping has seen only a negligible increase of a few hundred campers and frontcountry camping has seen an increase of almost 2 percent increase of approximately 6,000 additional visitors.

Visitation increases in 2006 to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park did not increase evenly across all of the park entrances. Where the Gatlinburg TN entrance to the park has seen almost flat increases visitation figures, outlying areas such as Cosby TN, Big Creek TN, Cataloochee NC and the like have seen visitor increases of 5%.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Visitation by Park Entrance for 2006
Outlying Areas (TN and NC)2,211,186+ 5%
Townsend Tennessee1,482,059+ 3%
Cherokee N Carolina2,321,471+ 2%
Gatlinburg Tennessee3,402,018< +1%
Total9,416,734+ 2%

So what does all mean to the park, the visitors and outlying businesses in and around the Smoky Mountains?

The park is already stressed. The entire park staff and volunteers are doing an exceptional job with extremely limited resources which are already stretched to the breaking point.

Some of the roads, facilities and trails are badly in need of repair and show signs of overuse or abuse. Where 1 person carelessly tossing a tissue on a trail is bad, dozen or hundreds dropping even small pieces of litter or even organic matter such as apple cores or orange peels in quite another thing.

Walking or hiking off of designated trails is not illegal, but can do serious damage to environmentally sensitive areas. One person who is careful may not do significant damage but again, in numbers many people wondering around off of designated hiking trails can do serious damage to plants as well as the habitats of sensitive insects, aquatic life and animals.

What goes for staying on the "beaten path" also goes for walking through streams and moving rocks and aquatic plants. It is best to cross streams at regular crossings and not to disturb what is in the stream bed.

The areas in and around the Smoky Mountains are growing by leaps and bounds making the top Real Estate agents and real estate brokers and well as mortgage companies and banks in the Smokies quite happy.

Cabin companies, hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions are also seeing increased revenue due to the many people who fall in love with the Smokies many of which come back again and again.

What these 2006 park visitation figures are showing is that more and more people are looking to experience the lesser known and lesser visited parts of the Smoky Mountains National Park. Is this phenomenon because the same visitors have seen the more popular areas of the park and are looking for some place new or are they trying to avoid the crowds of the most visited parts of this national park? I would be interested to know and I am conducting my own straw poll in regard to this.

Since so many businesses in the Smokies benefit because of tourism to the park, I make this plea to donate to organizations such as Friends of the Smokies or have a company picnic in the park after you have everyone spend an hour or two picking up litter in the park. Not only will the visitors who come to the park - your customers - appreciate it, you will feel better doing something good for the environment.

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