When Dolly Parton dreamed up the idea of an amusement park in east Tennessee, she said it would be “a fantasy city, a Smoky Mountain fairyland.”
Over the next three decades, Dollywood became the state’s biggest ticketed attraction, with nearly 2.5 million visitors annually. Tourism in Pigeon Forge, where Dollywood is located, regularly brings in $1 billion a year in revenue. Nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a massive draw, too, with a record 11.3 million visitors last year.
But a deadly wildfire last November scorched a path through the park and surrounding Sevier County, threatening to disrupt the only industry the region has: tourism. Gale-force winds spread the fire in a wild, erratic path for 24 hours. Fourteen people died. More than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed.
Images and news of families fleeing the wildfires were terrifying. Growing up in Tennessee, I was one of those millions who’d vacationed all my life in the Smokies and at Dollywood. When I was sent to Gatlinburg last year to report on the aftermath of the fire, I worried that many of the sites of my favorite childhood memories had gone up in smoke.
But while tourism took a hit, Dollywood and Pigeon Forge, along with most of downtown Gatlinburg, were mostly unaffected. And in late May, six months after the fire and just before the start of the busy summer season, I returned for another visit.
Returning as a mom
This time, I went as a parent, bringing my own daughter to make new memories.
My family rode the same roller coasters and water rides my brother and I rode as kids. We saw cowboys and cowgirls at Dollywood’s Dixie Stampede show perform the same amazing tricks on their horses. Three generations of my family, including my parents, my brother and his wife and his daughter, climbed aboard Dollywood’s old steam train.
My 2-year-old daughter laid her head down on my lap as we chugged along slowly and I felt like time was standing still. My memories were merging with the ones forming in her young mind of a special moment we could share forever.
All around us there was music. Often it was Parton’s signature high-pitched voice warbling through the Dollywood sound system, or bluegrass or gospel from a stage. The whole region peddles nostalgia, which felt both delightful and a bit staged — Dollywood workers dressed in plain gingham dresses or dirty coveralls, for example, the ostensible uniforms of mountain folk.
In many ways, the Smokies tourism industry goes hand-in-hand with Parton’s famous brand of folksy charm and family friendly entertainment. I was heartened to see so much of what I remembered from my childhood 20 years ago. And I was also glad to see that despite the fire, Gatlinburg was busy with tourists window shopping for T-shirts and hats, handmade candy, artwork and knickknacks, like carved figurines of black bears.
Perception is not reality
But tourism officials say the blaze has created a perception problem. Tourism over the winter and spring was abnormally slow. At Aunt Mahalia’s candy store in Gatlinburg, for example, business is down about 30 percent, with noticeably fewer weekend customers, according to assistant manager Scott Rowe.
Tourists “see those images, which are devastating, and they think the whole mountains, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are gone,” said Pigeon Forge tourism director Leon Downey.
The reality is that many tourist businesses, from go-kart parks and mini-golf to restaurants and theaters, were unscathed. And while hundreds of rental properties were damaged, plenty of cabins, hotels and other lodging are available.
Donna Schuster, visiting from Ashburn, Va., in late May, worried about what she’d find after seeing coverage of the fire, but was pleasantly surprised. “I really questioned whether we should come because of how devastating it looked on TV,” she said. “But they have really done a great job.”
Much of the burned debris has been removed, leaving only concrete pads where houses or buildings once stood. Foliage is returning to the trees. New construction is ongoing in downtown Gatlinburg, where a seven-story Margaritaville resort is rising and a new attraction called Anakeesta is being built to give tourists an aerial view as they climb into the mountains.
Joe Guenther, owner of the Day Hiker, a hiking supply store in Gatlinburg, estimates his business is down about 20 percent, but said the city’s tourism has dipped before in recession years or when gas prices were high. Day Hiker was closed for several days after the fire and some inventory had to be replaced because of smoke.
Many of Guenther’s customers ask about the status of the hiking trails in the Smokies or whether the fire has ruined the mountains’ scenic vistas. “Less than 10 percent of the park was affected, so there’s 900 miles of trails that are all there,” Guenther said.
An ad campaign has the tagline: “The place you love is still standing strong.”
Still, full economic recovery could take 18 months, according to Mark Adams, CEO of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Meanwhile the region has one of pop culture’s best-known voices as its most prominent supporter. Parton has raised millions of dollars for fire victims through a star-studded telethon, as well as her own donations, and handed out monthly checks to people who lost their homes in the fire.
“We thank her daily for her support, because there’s definitely a halo effect,” Adams said. “Without Dolly, we would have an even tougher battle in recovery.”