Sevier County's fall tourism on track for record receipts

The tourism powerhouse of Sevier County is coming off a strong summer, and business looks good as the leaves turn.

“All of us think we’re going to have another strong fall, provided the weather is friendly to us,” said Pete Owens, Dollywood vice president of marketing and public relations.

Fall colors are always a big tourism draw in Sevier County, said Jill Kilgore, public relations media manager for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. To augment that, the state has been installing special viewfinders at scenic overlooks to help people with red-green colorblindness see the changing leaves, she said.

One is in place at Ober Gatlinburg, and 10 more will likely be installed across the state this year, Kilgore said.

The viewfinder at Ober Gatlinburg is the only one in the immediate area thus far, and has gotten considerable use since its installation nearly a year ago, said Kate Barido, director of sales and marketing for Ober Gatlinburg. Reaching it requires a $7 chairlift ride to the mountaintop, but the viewfinder provides a panoramic view of the Smokies, she said.

Fall is a popular time of year to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said park spokesperson Julena Campbell. Visitor numbers this summer have been “fairly comparable” to previous years, and she expects the same in the next few months; October is usually the busiest time of the year.

“I think we are just starting to see some of the vegetation look a little bit more like fall,” Campbell said.

Park visitors should be on the lookout for elk, she said — they’ve been spotted on the North Carolina side of the park, and it’s rutting season, so male elk are unpredictable. People should stay at least 50 yards away from them, Campbell said.

Park service biologists estimate 150 elk wander in the park and outside its bounds in western North Carolina.

Bears are hungry now too, since summer berries are mostly gone while fall foods such as acorns aren’t yet ripe, she said. So visitors in and around the park should be careful to keep their own food locked up and out of bears’ reach, Campbell said.

Summer is still a strong travel season, but families have so many activities that long-term summer trips are fading, Owens said. Instead Dollywood is focusing on playing host to shorter visits just before and after school sessions, and on spring, fall and Christmas holiday breaks, he said.

“Right now we’re in a period where you see a lot of ‘grand-trippers,’ ” Owens said. That’s grandparents taking their grandchildren to the park while parents are at work, he said.

At the end of September Dollywood will ramp up its Harvest Festival, which includes the return of Great Pumpkin Luminights, Owens said.

“This year we’ve doubled the size of the footprint of that festival overlay,” he said. “Last year it was so popular that we actually set a record for fall attendance.”

The displays sculpted from jack-o'-lanterns, each with its own music, will be back with additions: a giant spider, bat, owl, and guitar, and — floating in a pond — frog, Owens said. Great Pumpkin Luminights is expected to attract families from this area and surrounding states, he said.

It is a social media wonderland for families that are taking pictures of themselves and their kids,” Owens said.

Also part of the Harvest Festival, the Southern Gospel Jubilee will be the largest such event in the country, attracting many couples and older visitors, he said.

Dollywood’s fall offerings are spilling over into Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, with Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge picking up the decorating theme, Owens said.

The pumpkins will depart in the first week of November, to be replaced by Christmas decorations.

“We have the No. 1 Christmas event of any theme park in America with Smoky Mountain Christmas,” Owens said.

This year will include a new Glacier Ridge display, more than 1 million new lights and a 50-foot animated storytelling tree, he said.

“It’s the largest expansion for Christmas that we’ve done since we opened Smoky Mountain Christmas in 1990,” Owens said.

Big number for Sevier, at $2.3 billion

Immediately after the 2016 wildfire that killed 14 people, destroyed more than 2,500 buildings — many of them hillside cabins rented to vacationers — and did about $1 billion in reported damage, spokespeople for Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville said the best way to help was for visitors to return and patronize the attractions.

Tourism agencies in Sevier County reported earlier this year that their marketing budgets, while experiencing regular growth, were back in a “normal” range after a yearlong surge of spending intended to convince travelers their favorite attractions survived the fire intact.

The marketing push worked: Area businesses reported solid numbers in 2017 — even some increases from before the fire — while a study from vacation rental website found summer 2018 bookings in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to be well above 2017 levels.

Tourist spending statewide hit an all-time high of $20.7 billion in 2017, up 6.3 percent from the previous year, according to figures from the U.S. Travel Association.

That meant $1.8 billion in state and local tax revenue, up 7.6 percent from 2016, according to the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. Tourism fuels 184,300 jobs statewide, a new TDTD report says.

Every county in the state saw more than $1 million in direct tourism impact, but only five counties topped $1 billion. They are:

    Davidson County (Nashville), with $6.5 billion;

    Shelby County (Memphis), with $3.5 billion;

    Sevier County, with $2.3 billion;

    Hamilton County (Chattanooga), with $1.1 billion; and

    Knox County, with $1.1 billion.

While Sevier is in third place overall, its much smaller population — about 100,000 — puts it first per capita. Person for person, Sevier County attracts nearly 10 times the tourist dollars that Knox County does.

People come back to Pigeon Forge, in ever-increasing numbers, because the city and its businesses work to make sure there’s always something new, said Leon Downey, executive director of the city’s tourism department.

Returning visitors from last year can now look forward to year-round snow tubing at Pigeon Forge Snow, new features at the Titanic Museum Attraction, the new Spinning Parrots Coaster and Yee-Haw Brewing Co. in The Island at Pigeon Forge, and Dollywood’s new offerings, he said.

As of the end of June, revenue from the tourism-related gross receipts tax in Pigeon Forge was up 12 percent from the same time last year, Downey said.

“We’ve had a very strong summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day, which is our peak travel season,” Downey said.

Many fall visitors are older, waiting to travel to the area until children are back in school, he said.

“They love coming for the fall colors, of course, and they love coming for the fall decorations,” Downey said.

Gatlinburg also has new hotels and rental cabins, plus recently added features such as Anakeesta, and coming attractions including Ole Red Gatlinburg, Kilgore said. Dollywood is expanding, too, with new rides, entertainment and restaurants.

Pigeon Forge’s second busiest time is September and October, Downey said. Hoteliers say they’re on track to beat 2017’s revenue, as more rooms have come online in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg; and though campgrounds usually book on shorter notice, reservations so far are ahead of last year, he said.

“It looks good for the lodging people I’ve talked to, they’re optimistic,” Downey said.

Pigeon Forge itself has multiple big events scheduled for the fall, from car shows and a quartet-singing convention to a large religious group and convention of varsity cheerleaders, he said.

“All three of those events will sell out the city,” Downey said. Many of those events will be at the LeConte Center, so the city recently bought 23 acres to provide 2,100 more parking spots, Downey said.

Tourism pays the bills, but also strains roads, police and wastewater infrastructure, he said.

“(There are) 6,000 permanent residents (in Pigeon Forge), but on any given day you’ll have 50,000 people in town,” Downey said. “People complain about the traffic, but I always say, ‘It looks like money to me.’ ”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Jim Gaines

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit

Published August 31, 2018