With the Memorial Day weekend and start of the vacation season, tourism dollars top the agenda.
Well, maybe not for people headed to mountains and lakes and beaches for fun in the sun. They’ll spend what family budgets allow and that’s it until the next holiday.
But for the communities they visit, those dollars are critical to maintaining economic vitality that sustains throughout the year.
The just-released “2018 National Park Visitor Spending Effects” study drives that message home. The annual report prepared for the National Park Service shows national park visitor spending contributed $40.1 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018.
It found that of the 329,000 jobs supported by visitors’ dollars, more than 268,000 are employed in park gateway communities.
At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the nation’s most visited, those communities include Townsend and all of Blount as well as nearby counties in Tennessee and North Carolina.
When referencing the latest data, GSMNP Superintendent Cassius Cash noted the completed section of the Foothills Parkway that traverses Blount County from Wears Valley to Chilhowee Lake. Opening the “Missing Link” made that drive possible.
“Since last November, we’ve welcomed nearly 1 million visitors to the new section of the Foothills Parkway, offering a new park experience with magnificent views of the highest peaks of the Smokies. We appreciate the long-standing support of our gateway communities and are glad to have this opportunity to give back by helping support the local economy,” Cash said.
The new NPS report shows that 11,421,203 visitors to the Smokies in 2018 spent $953 million in communities near the park. That spending supported 13,737 jobs.
The data underscores what tourism development officials already knew: National park visitation is a significant driver of the national economy. And every dollar invested by American taxpayers in the National Park Service returns $10 to the economy.
By the numbers
The peer-reviewed visitor spending analysis was conducted by economists Catherine Cullinane Thomas and Egan Cornachione of the U.S. Geological Survey and Lynne Koontz of the National Park Service. The report shows $20.2 billion of direct spending by more than 318 million park visitors in communities within 60 miles of a national park.
Lodging expenses account for the largest share of visitor spending — about $6.8 billion in 2018. Food expenses are the second-largest spending category with visitors spending $4 billion in restaurants and bars and another $1.4 billion at grocery and convenience stores.
Visitor spending on lodging supported more than 58,000 jobs and more than 61,000 jobs in restaurants. Visitor spending in recreation industries supported more than 28,000 jobs, and spending in retail supported more than 20,000 employees.
The numbers are impressive, but that’s not what defines the experience for visitors to the Smokies, according to Dave Jones, East Tennessee division manager for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.
“The park is a key driver to Tennessee, such an amazing experience that we have here in the eastern part of the state,” Jones said. “It has diversity in experiences that’s hard to find anywhere else. When you think about it, there is something for everybody.”
Which is fine with tourism officials, who treasure an attraction everybody can enjoy.
“That makes it a multigenerational experience, from the kids to the adults to the seniors. Grandpa can bring everybody to the Smokies,” Jones said.
That’s something Jones, a Seymour resident whose job covers 34 East Tennessee counties, can relate to.
“That’s what my grandfather did years ago. I’ve got black-and-white photos of my grandfather pulled over at one of those overlooks — my grandfather and his hat and my grandmother and an old Oldsmobile and I’m there a little kid in a pair of shorts. We all have those pictures that go down through generations. It’s a multigenerational experience,” Jones said.
Beyond the obvious economic benefits that accrue to the motels and restaurants that serve visitors, beyond even the retailers and the support staff of those businesses, the economy is boosted by a nearby national park.
“It’s good for drawing businesses and industries to this area,” he said.
Jones recalled the words of an East Tennessee executive speaking about why he liked where he worked. He wasn’t referring specifically to the Smokies, but the analogy applies.
“He said, ‘You know, I don’t live here because I work here. I work here because I want to live here,’” Jones recalled.
“We don’t work 24 hours a day. It’s the things that we do during our time off that contribute to our well-being and our satisfaction,” Jones added. “Having that park nearby in Blount County, that’s a draw for businesses to want to be here — and more importantly for employees to want to come and work here.”