The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dealt a blow by an international panel of tourism experts who ranked 115 destinations worldwide for a March article in National Geographic Traveler.
Of the three categories — “The Good,” “Not So Bad,” and “Getting Ugly” — the Smokies ranked near the bottom in the “Getting Ugly” category. Towns such as Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge cloud visitors’ natural and cultural experience and encroach on the park’s ecosystem, the experts said.
Visitors interviewed in the park last week seemed to agree that the Tennessee side of the park is too gaudy. The wax museum, chair lift, sky needle and fudge and cotton candy shops of Gatlinburg were not the reason they visited the Smokies. In fact, it was a turn-off.
“I don’t like it. I’ll tell you the truth,” said Paul Johnson, a visitor from Houston, Texas. “It’s too commercial. There’s nowhere to park. It isn’t tourist-friendly.”
“The forest is just stunning,” he said. But next time, Johnson said he will take the bypass around Gatlinburg and try Pigeon Forge. When asked if he considered the North Carolina side of the park, Johnson grew puzzled. While he’d heard you could get into the park from North Carolina, he wasn’t sure how or where.
Meanwhile, business owners on the North Carolina side of the Smokies are pulling their hair out trying to lure more park visitors, pitching their towns as the antithesis of the amusement park motif of Gatlinburg.
“We need to emphasize this is the greener side of the park,” said Kent Stewart, owner of Waynesville Book Company.