GATLINBURG, Tenn. — While this Smoky Mountain tourist destination is open for business after a devastating wildfire last month, many visitors are gawking at the damage instead of shopping or visiting attractions, people who make their livelihood in the town said.
Most of downtown reopened Dec. 9, taking less than two weeks to repair and clean up after the fire that killed 14 people and destroyed nearly 1,700 homes and businesses. And it's largely intact.
"Since the fires, we're down about 50%, 50% plus, I'll put it that way,” said Eric Hensley, vice president of Deux Ron Inc., which owns the Space Needle, Arcadia, Slice Pizza Bakery, The Captured Escape Game, and Iris Theater. "We were up 25% over 2015. Now we're down 50% over 2015.”
The town's main street is unscathed, and a lot of people erroneously think that all of their favorite destinations, such as the Space Needle, are gone, Hensley said.
"A lot of people come in and they believe there may not be a Gatlinburg at all to come to," he said. "A lot canceled vacations.”
Business in winter was never wonderful, but it’s usually better than now, said Minnie De La Cruz, desk clerk at the Museum of Salt & Pepper Shakers. On Sunday, the weather in the mountains was 65 and partly cloudy.
For the next three days, temperatures are expected to be in the high 50s and low 60s with some showers moving in Tuesday. For the three-day New Year's holiday weekend, expect 50 degrees and some showers, forecasters said.
On Gatlinburg's first post-fire weekend, 90% of people who came more than 150 miles had been there before, according to an Internet Marketing Expert Group survey of 520 visitors. Nearly two-thirds of those people said they saw less damage than they expected, and everyone said they would recommend Gatlinburg to others.
In 2015, tourism spending had $2 billion in economic impact in Sevier County as a whole — which includes Pigeon Forge where Dolly Parton has her Dollywoodamusement park and hotel and Sevierville, the first town tourists encounter as they head up the mountain to Gatlinburg. That's third in the state behind the counties that contain Nashville and Memphis, according to Cindy Dupree, director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.
State officials have not estimated yet how much the fire will hurt this year's total.
From his seat at a pay parking lot just off the Parkway in Gatlinburg, Mike Mathis can see the ruins of burned houses on surrounding hills. But the business strip looks as though nothing happened, he said.
While business is still a little slow, “it’s definitely coming back,” Mathis said.
Tammy Banks, manager of a Flapjack's Pancake Cabin location in Gatlinburg, thinks so too.
"It started slower but it's picking up," she said. "The mountains are our biggest asset, and they're still here.”
Ken Kooch, manager of Fudge Shoppe of the Smokies next to Ripley's Odditorium in Gatlinburg, blames media for his lack of business.
"Of course, it's going to be slower because the national news is telling people 70% of the town is burned down. What burned down is people's residences outside of the city,” Kooch said. "National news is killing us."
When national news outlets left after several days, the big stories stopped, leaving the impression of widespread destruction, he said. Even calls for donations on local radio may drive away tourists who listen online.
Gatlinburg benefits from being 300 miles or less as the crow flies from many urban areas, including Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Louisville and Nashville. And it's 500 miles or less, about a day's drive, from Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, the District of Columbia, Little Rock, Memphis and St. Louis. Add a dozen more miles and Orlando is included.
"It's starting to pick back up slowly," Kevin Long, attendant at Smoky Mountain Fantasy Golf in Pigeon Forge, said about business. Now he’s getting customers from other states and is assuring callers that the mini-golf course will be open the week between Christmas and New Year's.
Three-day weekends are an especially important part of business because of the area's accessibility via Interstate 40, yet remoteness at the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The fires in the mountains created a public relations problem days before they destroyed homes, said Clell Ogle, owner of Factories Outlet China & Gift Mart. People who had planned a week of vacation in the area would leave early because of smoke.
Business is the slowest Ogle has seen in 32 years at his Pigeon Forge store and one near Interstate 40. Though traffic has returned, fewer people are actually buying, he said.
He doesn't blame it all on the wildfire. Floods in areas such as Alabama and Louisiana, which where many vacationers live, may have prevented trips too.
“When you have disasters like that, that affects everything,” Ogle said.
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