Study: Shutdown hit national park hard

Oct. 15, 2013 @ 04:21 AM

The impact of the partial federal government shutdown has hit a national park with tourism from western North Carolina particularly hard.

The repercussions from the closing of national parks could, however, have a positive effect on state parks, such as Chimney Rock State Park.

Steve Morse, director of Western Carolina University's Hospitality and Tourism program said the closure of the park costs nearly $1 million per day in money not being spent by tourists in North Carolina to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In a recent study, Morse projected nearly $33 million in lost visitor dollars in both Tennessee and North Carolina over the first 10 days of the shutdown. That figure climbs closer to $40 million as the shutdown concluded its second week Monday.

That impact does have correlation to counties that don't border the park, including Rutherford County.

"There is going to be people going through Rutherford and Buncombe counties on their way to the park," Morse said. "There is going to be an impact on spending on those counties as well."

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country, drawing nearly 9.6 million visitors each year. That doubles the average number of visitors to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Morse said Great Smoky Mountain National Park has lost close to 400,000 visitors since the shutdown began.

One potential benefit to the closure of the national park is the spill-over that could have on visitors looking to go to places like Chimney Rock State Park.

State parks are not directly impacted by the current shutdown.

"It could have a positive impact on places like Chimney Rock and other state parks," Morse said. "In Tennessee, I have heard that the state parks have seen an increase in attendance."

James Ledgerwood, superintendent of Chimney Rock State Park, said the park has received an increasing amount of calls regarding camping at Chimney Rock; however, the park does not offer camping sites.

"Our attendance, as far as I know, hasn't increased," Ledgerwood said.

While Ledgerwood said attendance due to the shutdown of Great Smoky Mountains hasn't impacted Chimney Rock State Park, one thing this week certainly will.

On Monday, the elevator leading to 315-foot monolith was reopened. Ledgerwood said it will close again on Wednesday for service work but it will reopen for the weekend.

"With that back open, it is definitely easier to get up to the rock," Ledgerwood said. "With the fall colors being present, I would imagine we will see a good crowd this weekend."

In addition to tourism dollars being lost is worker's wages. Morse calculated the closure of Great Smoky Mountain National Park costs over $1 million per day in lost wages to workers in and around the park.

"Those waiters and waitresses won't get back-pay once this is resolved," Morse said. "This is hitting local tourism very hard."

If the shutdown continues, Morse said it won't be just the Great Smoky Mountains National Park affected. The fall foliage viewing season is also nearing its peak in October.

Regions around Rutherford County experience a 3-3.5 percent increase in hotel occupancy during the month of October. Morse attributes that increase to visitors looking at the fall foliage turnover.

"We just completed a study on the fall foliage season in North Carolina and we found October is the No. 1 occupancy rate month for hotels in western North Carolina," Morse said. "It's amazing what the fall foliage season means to tourism and especially small businesses."