During the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen some major changes here in the Sevier County area of East Tennessee. The Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville communities have had their best year ever, despite the near shutdown during the first months of the pandemic. Even the hotels rallied during the second half of 2020 and are doing even better in 2021 but the biggest winners were by far the vacation rentals.
If you consider this, it makes perfect sense. Rather than flying, a family could drive their family vehicle to the Smoky Mountains, stay in a private cabin, enjoy the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, order meals to be delivered via GrubHub, UberEats, or another service if they wanted, and NEVER come within 50 feet of ANYONE. Talk about socially distant! They wouldn’t take any more risk of infection than they would if they stayed at home. And since so many schools and businesses were closed or working remotely, they were enjoying a perfect opportunity to escape, and to do it safely.
One of the biggest changes was the number of people visiting our Smoky Mountain community from states that we weren’t used to seeing in large numbers. When infection rates skyrocketed upward in New York and New Jersey, we started seeing those states’ license plates frequently. Previously, we would once in a LONG while see guests from New England, but the number of people visiting the Smoky Mountains from that part of the country increased exponentially. The same thing happened when Texas and Oklahoma had their surge in virus cases, and again when Arizona and California’s infection rates went up. Our community was the perfect place to escape to, and we saw people from almost every one of the 50 states here in Sevier County.
Fast forward to 2021 and we are still witnessing lots of out of state tags. I have recently spotted license plates from all of the typical states that visit here (Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana) but also from much farther away as well. California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Washington, and Oregon tags have been seen this week as well as lots of other states including Texas, New York, New Jersey, and many more.
The bottom line is that our visitor count is WAY up for the first quarter of 2021, and there appears to be no stopping this trend. We really don’t have an off season anymore and that’s okay (although a short break would be nice). Vacation rentals and our local hotels are having another great year, but the real question is how many of our guests that visited the Great Smoky Mountains for the first time ever in 2020 will be back this year? That will determine if the new higher visitor numbers are sustainable. I think they will be back. After all, what’s not to like? Great scenery, friendly people, low taxes, affordable living expenses and low crime are all great attractions. No wonder that a lot of these out of state tourists have chosen to live here permanently. Yep, that’s happening too. Zoom conferences and other online tools have made people more portable than ever before. As long as your home has reliable broadband internet, many people can now do their job from anywhere.
To all of our new residents of East Tennessee, I heartily say welcome to our little paradise! I do however have one request of you new Tennessee residents: Please don’t try to change what we have here that works so well. We are, by and large, a God-fearing, politically conservative community that doesn’t honk their car horns too often and we still sometimes offer a friendly wave to motorists (regardless of whether we know them or not) on the backroads. The worst outcome possible would be for all of these new residents to create an environment here similar to what they moved away from.