The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Despite Covid slowdowns and shutdowns, Smokies draws $1B in 2020 revenue to neighboring communities

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Brace fishingA Knoxville man tries his hand at fly fishing in Abrams Creek during a family camping trip on the southwestern side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

Green begets green in Smokies region; Big South Fork and Cumberland Gap also economic players

Recent federal analysis of spending by national park visitors is a testament to the economic benefits of environmental protection, scientific study and outdoor recreation.

The 12.1 million visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2020 spent $1.024 billion in neighboring communities in both Tennessee and North Carolina, according to a study released this week by the National Park Service. Similar, localized releases were distributed into national park communities across the country.

Closer to home, that number represents the estimated visitor money spent in areas that include traditional “gateway” communities, such as Townsend and Gatlinburg, and Cherokee and Bryson City in North Carolina. Regionally, it’s at least a $5 million increase since 2012. Travel problems, housing and employee shortages, overdevelopment and environmental destruction are of course persistent in some of those areas.

The economic-impact study by the park service and National Geologic Survey concluded that even during a year marked by the Covid-19 crisis, visitor spending supported nearly 15,000 jobs and had a total economic impact of $1.38 billion. That’s about the same as 2019, despite pandemic-related travel slowdowns and the closure of park roadways at the height of the pandemic in spring 2020.

The figure was more than twice the visitor spending reported around Yellowstone National Park, according to federal data. Tourist spending around Great Smoky Mountains National Park is only exceeded in park service units by visitors along the 470-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs from North Carolina to Virginia.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area was also included in the 2020 study; visitor spending there was $24 million. Visitors to Cumberland Gap National Park spent nearly $50 million in that area. Even the relatively small Obed National Wild and Scenic River, a regional climbing and paddling draw, attracted nearly $5 million in 2020. Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Oak Ridge generated $187,000. 

Total visitor spending around National Park Service units in Tennessee approached $1 billion. (The Great Smoky Mountains National Park tourist revenue is across two states).

Nationally, the economic analysis concluded that a total of 237 million national park visitors spent $14.5 billion within 60 miles of national parks, for a national cumulative impact of $38.6 billion. Visitor services such as lodging (the main recipient of tourist money), restaurants, retail outlets, recreation services and other attractions supported 234,000 jobs in the U.S.

“In spite of an incredibly difficult year in the world and in our neighboring communities, we are proud to have worked alongside our communities to serve visitors to this area in 2020,” said Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash. “We remain committed to safely serving visitors in our communities and the park as they continue to explore our area and find the amazing resources the Smokies have to offer.”

For a deeper dive on the economic impacts of national park units, the analysis also includes an interactive dataset on national park visitor spending  and its economic contributions across the country. 

Here’s the full press release from Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

A new National Park Service (NPS) report shows that 12,095,721 visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2020 spent $1,024,024,000 in communities near the park. That spending supported 14,707 jobs in the local area and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $1.38 billion. 

“In spite of an incredibly difficult year in the world and in our neighboring communities, we are proud to have worked alongside our communities to serve visitors to this area in 2020,” said Superintendent Cash. “We remain committed to safely serving visitors in our communities and the park as they continue to explore our area and find the amazing resources the Smokies have to offer.” 

The peer-reviewed visitor spending analysis was conducted by economists with the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. The report shows $14.5 billion of direct spending by more than 237 million park visitors in communities within 60 miles of a national park. This spending supported 234,000 jobs nationally; 194,400 of those jobs are found in these gateway communities. The cumulative benefit to the U.S. economy was $28.6 billion. 

Looking at the economics of visitor spending nationally, the lodging sector had the highest direct effects, with $5 billion in economic output. The restaurants sector was had the second greatest effects, with $3 billion in economic output. Visitor spending on lodging supported more than 43,100 jobs and more than 45,900 jobs in restaurants. Visitor spending in the recreation industries supported more than 18,100 jobs and spending in retail supported more than 14,300 jobs. 

Report authors also produced an interactive tool that enables users to explore visitor spending, jobs, labor income, value added, and output effects by sector for national, state, and local economies. Users can also view year-by-year trend data. Try the interactive tool and read the full report on the NPS Social Science Program page.

To learn more about national parks in North Carolina and Tennessee and how the National Park Service works with communities in both states to help preserve local history, conserve the environment, and provide outdoor recreation, go to www.nps.gov/TENNESSEE or www.nps.gov/NORTHCAROLINA."

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