WNC's Burgeoning Tourism Industry

May 31, 2016


On the tailgate of an old rusted red pickup truck, a bumper sticker reads, “Why is it called tourist season if we can’t shoot em’?”.  


The vehicle is parked alongside dozens of others in the fields of Darnell Farms, just outside of Bryson City, for its seventeenth annual Strawberry Jam farm-raising event. In the air an aroma of boiled peanuts and kettle-cooked corn mixes with the sounds of bluegrass and children playing, along the banks of the nearby Tuckasegee River.


Whether it was the festivities, the produce it was selling, or simply its event page on Facebook; by the end of the day the farm will have seen a few hundred visitors attend its event, and will have netted over $5,000 in sales and donations. Events like these—or “hootenannies”, as farm owner Nathan Darnell calls them, have become an important function for farms like his.


“It did become a large part of our revenue. Not substantial enough that we couldn’t operate without it, but it's important enough that having it certainly does add in to what we do as a whole—it makes a big difference,” he said.


That’s because it’s tourism season for Western North Carolina, and tourism is big business for the small towns and hamlets throughout the mountains. So, to capture some of the millions of dollars tourists bring into the region every year, countless festivals like Strawberry Jam pop up on the calendars of each community—from early spring until late fall—attracting millions of people from around the world drawn not only to the mountains themselves, but to mountain culture as well.


“The idea of the mountains being a place people want to come to for tourism; they want to experience the mountains, they want to experience the nature and the environments involved, but they also want to be involved with the kind of things we do in the mountains, stereotypically, to have fun—which is have festivals, and get people out to a hootenanny.”


Regardless of whether people are coming to the mountains for business or pleasure, the fact of the matter is that Western North Carolina’s tourism industry is not just big, even by global standards, but it’s growing. Approximately 17 million people visited the Blue Ridge Parkway last year, making it the most visited site in the National Park Service. Throughout the previous year, that figure was just under thirteen million visitors. To put things into perspective, last year about 7 million people visited the Eiffel Tower, and approximately 9 million visited the Great Wall of China. The only site in America that receives more tourists each year is the Las Vegas Strip, which sees about 30 million people per year. So at the end of the day, all of this translates to one important thing: money.


“Tourism plays a massive role in Jackson County’s economy,” says Nick Breedlove, Director of Jackson County’s Tourism Development Authority. “In 2014, which is the most recent data we have, tourism contributed $171.16 million to the local economy. Boiling that down, that’s $38.7 million in local worker paychecks, so it contributes a significant amount to the economic vitality of our community.”


But the buck doesn’t stop in Jackson County. Where Western North Carolina lacks in heavy industry or manufacturing jobs, it makes up for in a robust tourism industry. According to a study by the U.S. Travel Association, the region accrued approximately $3.23 billion in tourist spending in 2014—an average of nearly 5 percent growth from the year before. And according to Dr. Steve Morse, professor of tourism at Western Carolina University, what this economic growth means for mountain-area communities is jobs—in both existing and emerging markets.


“People from the outside that inject money into Western North Carolina, are producing a tremendous amount of economic impact in terms of jobs, worker paychecks and taxes,” says Dr. Morse. One myth of the tourism industry, he explains, is that it creates mostly low-paying jobs. While there may be some truth to this, he explains that tourism is steadily creating a wider array of job markets in the region.


“A lot of people forget that there are a tremendous amount of professional businesses supporting tourism behind the scenes. For example, advertising businesses, printing, brochure, legal, finance, promotional businesses, attractions, and restaurants and hotels that work behind the scenes—they would not have jobs if it weren’t for tourists spending money here as well.”


In 2014 the U.S. Travel Association estimated that tourism generated roughly 30,430 jobs for the region—jobs from which workers earned approximately $624 million that same year. On average, the food service industry received the lion’s share of tourist dollars, about 33 percent, while 30 percent went toward transportation and 18 percent went toward lodging. When it comes to the local economy, says Morse, it’s jobs like these that further compound it’s development down the road, largely because they are jobs that cannot be outsourced to countries like India or China—and they are jobs that roughly one-in-five Western North Carolinians have. However it’s not just job security that tourism dollars contribute to the economy, but tax relief.


“We call tourists ‘temporary taxpayers’,” says Morse. “They pay local sales tax, they pay state sales tax, they generate taxes at hotels and restaurants pay on business taxes. For example, in Macon County, 23,331 households save $716 a year because of the taxes that tourists pay when they visit.”


And with lowered taxes, job creation and economic growth, comes social mobility—all things that Morse says not only improves the quality of living in any community, but goes particularly far in an Appalachian one. But it doesn’t take an economist like Dr. Morse to point that out. Back at Darnell Farms, when asked if he could describe Strawberry Jam in one word, thirteen-year-old Evan Klatt had this to say: “How about two? ‘Country - Fun’”.


And perhaps that’s what it’s all about.


For WCQS News, I’m Davin Eldridge