By Michael Williams
For the second consecutive year, Sevier County tourism is set to break a new record. Tourism revenues made history in 2014 and are on track to break last year’s records.
According to Leon Downey, executive director of tourism in Pigeon Forge, 2014 shattered the previous year’s tourism revenue, almost surpassing the $1 billion mark. Through July of 2015, the county’s tourism revenue is up 12 percent from last year and is expected to surpass $1 billion.
Following the start of the Great Recession in 2008, tourism in Sevier County took a nosedive but began a gradual recovery making significant gains with each passing year. Contributing factors to a slow recovery were gas prices, which rose as high as $5 per gallon in 2009 and an escalating unemployment rate which stymied growth and stalled economic recovery. The strategic location of Sevier County makes the area accessible to one-sixth of the U.S. population which reside within an eight-hour drive.
In Gatlinburg for 2015, lodging has seen an increase of 13 percent over the previous year. In Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, lodging increased 21 percent and seven percent respectively.
Retail spending at area stores has increased similarly. While local attractions are drawing record crowds, shopping continues to be the most popular activity among tourists. The top attraction in the county is Tanger Outlet Mall which outpaces all other retailers, including Walmart.
According to Downey, consumer confidence ratings are high this year and people are feeling better about the money they have. Declining gas prices are contributing to rising tourism statistics.
What remains to be seen is how the fall season will unfold. Historically, leaf season is the most profitable portion of the tourist season. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the area in October to see the autumn colors as leaves change to a plethora of hues. The weather will be a contributing factor in the success of leaf season.
“People come from all over just to see the fall foliage in the mountains,” Downey said. “It should be another strong fall and hopefully we will finish the year even stronger than last year.”