Tourism Up at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Sevier County (WVLT) - High gas prices don't appear to be keeping people from visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, during 2006 the park saw its biggest increase in visitors in five years.

Volunteer TV's Stephen McLamb explains what that means for the environment and businesses competing for those millions of tourist dollars.

David Arlington says he tries to get to the Smokies from Florida as often as he can and apparently he's not alone.

"In 2006, received a two percent increase in the number of visitors to the park," National Parks spokeswoman Nancy Gray said.

That translates to 9.4 million visitors. So what environmental impact does that have on the Smokies?

"Trail erosion, air pollution with cars which is a regional problem as well, but again, having an increase in visitation isn't really going to make that bigger of an impact," Gray said.

So that's good news and good news for nearby tourist destinations like Pigeon Forge.

"Our gross business is up nine percent," Pigeon Forge assistant tourism director Kay Powell said.

Places like the Miracle Theater are enjoying a good first year. For them, attendance is expanding into the new year.

"We feel that our numbers are going to be way up. Right now, we have churches from all over the southeast booking," Miracle Theatre general manager Bob Eubanks said.

But officials do not feel the mountains compete with Pigeon Forge rather they compliment each other.

"We have all the action packed activities here and then you can go just six or seven miles away and be in the National Park and be in a completely different environment," Powell said.

So with gross sales of more than $840 million, it's been a good year for Pigeon Forge.

"That's for a town of 5,600 or something, you know," Powell said.

While the Pigeon Forge numbers are through November, Powell says she hopes the final year end totals will be in early next week. Officials at Wonderworks, which opened in 2006, say they exceeded expectations for attendance.

Meanwhile, Pete Owens at Dollywood says both Dollywood and Splash Country set attendance records for 2006.