Tourism in Western North Carolina

When we travel to new places, it is often our goal to bring back a little something with us, a memento of our trip, a physical reminder of our experience, a tool to aid us in bragging about our journeys. In fact, when we know that a friend is going on vacation somewhere, we say, “bring me a souvenir,” as if we can travel vicariously via a cheap keychain or shot glass.

Doing the tourist thing in Montana.

Me, doing the tourist thing in Montana.

In general, I think we fail to stop and think about the influence we have on a place when we travel. Usually, we are trying to figure out what a destination has to offer us; however, as tourists, we greatly affect the lives of local inhabitants depending on where we go. While it is perhaps less prevalent in today’s globalized society, travel between different groups allows for cultural exchange. In modern times, there is more of a focus on monetary exchange. The state of North Carolina alone made $18.41 billion in 2011. It seems that there is still a market for travel even with the nation’s financial struggles. For many people, this is good news because they make their livelihood off of tourism as a business.

Because I grew up in western North Carolina, I know how important visitors’ funds can be for a town. My hometown Cherokee relies heavily on tourists—especially those who visit the casino. Vacationers also frequent nearby towns such as Bryson City, Sylva, Waynesville, and Asheville. Over time, most of these towns—or cities, in Asheville’s case—have evolved to cater to tourists. This has undeniably shaped modern Appalachian culture.

My step-dad helped build the fountain that signals you are leaving reservation land.Cherokee, NC

My step-dad helped build the fountain that signals you are leaving reservation land.
Cherokee, NC

After the Civil War, many places in the south were left in shambles, but social and economic changes caused by growing interest in tourism had a huge effect on places like Asheville. Western Carolina University Professor Richard D. Starnes explains, “After the arrival of the railroad in 1880, Ashevilleans set about building a city of high culture, modern urban amenities, and a reputation for southern hospitality—not for their own enjoyment but to keep visitors coming back”1. Luxurious inns and homes such as the Battery Park, the Biltmore Estate, and the Grove Park Inn were built2. Asheville had “transformed from a regional market center to a bustling, affluent municipality” where many people chose to vacation3.

During the late nineteenth century, Asheville was seen as a good location for health due to its climate and elevation. Because of this, city officials worked hard to improve local public health conditions up into the twentieth century. They also wanted to improve the image of rural life, so they worked on public projects such as water, electric streetcar, and telephone systems4. To further promote Asheville’s image, leaders attempted to clean up the crime rate, although some felt that tourism encouraged criminal acts5.

The crimes are pretty amusing.

The crimes are pretty interesting.

While tourism dwindled during World War I, it picked up again as automobiles became more popular for travel6. In 1924, the city changed their baseball team’s name from the Skylanders to the Asheville Tourists, indicating how significant tourism was in creating Asheville’s new identity7.

In 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed, straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. The creation of the park had perhaps the largest impact on tourism in western North Carolina. Great Smokies is the most visited national park in the nation, with an average of over 9.4 million visits in 2010. It is estimated that the park brings in “over $718 million a year for surrounding tourist communities.” These funds are essential for places like Swain County that largely contain park land.

Middle Prong River,Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Middle Prong River,
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Recently, a landslide has closed Newfound Gap Road, which connects Tennessee and North Carolina. This will likely hurt businesses in Cherokee that rely on tourism, as well as other surrounding counties, until the road is rebuilt. In fact, the Cherokee One Feather states that the reconstruction “contract includes a monetary incentive of $18,000 per day to the selected contractor for each day of completion prior to May 15, 2013, up to a maximum of $500,000 offered jointly by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and the National Park Service.” This shows how important leaders feel it is to get the road open to visitors.

With attractions such as Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, Sequoyah National Golf Club, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and the Oconaluftee Indian Village, many residents rely on tourists for their income. Anthropologist Christina Taylor Beard-Moose’s research shows that about 80 percent of Cherokee’s people are employed in tourism related industry8. Nearby Bryson City also relies heavily on outsider visitation, bordering the national park and having attractions like the Nantahala Outdoor Center and the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. Locals frequently rely on sharing their handicrafts, traditions, and knowledge of the natural environment to survive.

From a cultural perspective, the tourism industry promotes a certain image about a place. As I’ve mentioned before, this can promote stereotypes. For example, when I was young in Cherokee, it was not uncommon to see shops with tipis, enforcing the false idea that the Cherokee lived in tipis. As I have gotten older, it seems that Cherokee and surrounding towns are trying to promote a more authentic traditional identity, helping those visitors catch a glimpse of real people. So when you are traveling out and about, consider the impact that your visit is making on locals. Perhaps next time you get a souvenir, it will be a handmade item that truly reflects an area’s heritage.




  1. Richard D. Starnes, “‘A Conspicuous Example of What is Termed the New South’: Tourism and Urban Development in Asheville, North Carolina, 1880-1925.” North Carolina Historical Review 80, no. 1 (January 2003), 56.
  2. Ibid., 57-59.
  3. Ibid., 52.
  4. Ibid., 62-65.
  5. Ibid., 72-73.
  6. Ibid., 78.
  7. Ibid., 52.
  8. Erve Chambers, “Public Indians, Private Cherokees: Tourism and Tradition on Tribal Ground.” Journal Of American Ethnic History 31, no. 1 (Fall 2011), 87.