Sevier County tourism will rise again, say officials

11/29/2016

Allen Newton choked up Tuesday morning as he thanked God for rain.

“We want more rain,” he said.

Newton, executive director of the Sevier County Economic Development Council, hoped the previous night’s showers would help knock down the forest fires which were eating into the region’s economic lifeblood – tourism.

The county, with a population of about 100,000, sees 11 million visitors annually, according to the East Tennessee Economic Development Agency. But Tuesday some of the hotels which host those visitors were reported on fire, and the attractions along U.S. 441 in Gatlinburg stood empty as the city had been evacuated.

“It is devastating,” Newton said. His office was coordinating meals for firefighters and other emergency workers, but he knew nothing of the extent of the damage, he said.

“We are in crisis mode. We can’t even think about that right now,” Newton said.

Gov. Bill Haslam, a Knoxville native, has been getting “constant updates” from the Tennessee departments of Emergency Management, Military, Safety, and Agriculture, his press secretary Jennifer Donnals said in an email.

The state hasn’t had a chance to evaluate the damage and its likely effects, according to Kevin Triplett, state commissioner of Tourist Development; but it’s sure to be enormous.

“Sevier County’s the No. 3 county in the state for economic impact from tourism,” he said.

Once the fires are out the state will make a full assessment, Triplett said.

“Our concern right now is for our friends and partners, who we deal with on a weekly basis, who are dealing with this right now,” he said Tuesday morning. “They’ve been delivered a tough blow, but they are as resilient as any group of people I’ve ever dealt with.”

It’s hard to tell how soon damaged attractions can be rebuilt, and tourists enticed back, but in general people return “fairly quickly” in such situations, Triplett said. He cited resurgent tourism in Nashville after major Cumberland River flooding six years ago.

“Nashville came back very quickly,” Triplett said.

His department’s role will be in promoting a revived Gatlinburg, part of what’s likely to be an extensive package of state help.

‘From a marketing standpoint we’re prepared to help in any way we can,” Triplett said. “Our industry is built on hospitality, and our industry is built on service and doing for others. So when people in our industry are faced with challenging times it’s just a natural reaction for people to pitch in and help get back on their feet.”

In Gatlinburg and throughout Sevier County, the hotels, restaurants and emergency workers are all pulling together to “get this community back on its feet” as fast as possible, Newton said.

“We will rise back up,” he said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel

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 www.eteda.org

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