NASHVILLE, Tenn. – As 2010 comes to a close, visits to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are keeping pace with 2009 traffic.
Through November, visits to the 500,000-acre park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border were 1.7 percent ahead of year-before visits to date despite a steep November drop at the Gatlinburg park entrance and a year plagued by road construction.
In 2009, there were nearly 9.5 million visitors to the park.
"Flat is the new up," said Bob Miller, a spokesman for the National Park Service in Gatlinburg, who said keeping pace with 2009 is an accomplishment in a year when many tourist destinations show strong declines.
In November, overall Smokies visits fell 12.4 percent, the Park Service said. The decline was most dramatic at the Gatlinburg entrance, where traffic was off 25.3 percent.
The other two main park entrances were also down — 12.3 percent at Townsend and 2.5 percent at Cherokee, N.C.
The park's 13 outlying areas showed a 5.3 percent increase in visitors for November.
Miller says the November decline could have been because the fall colors were on time this year after late autumn foliage peaks in the past few years.
"This year, the foliage peaked on time in the last week or two of October," Miller said. "In the last several years, it's gone well into November."
Miller noted that, while many people book vacations to the Smokies well in advance, the park is within a day's drive of hundreds of thousands of potential visitors, who can change their travel plans to fit the season. Park officials think many of those people simply came in October. In addition, the eleventh month of 2010 was dreary in the mountains this year.
"This November was rainy and not very pleasant at all," Miller said.
Business is booming in the Smokies gateway city of Pigeon Forge.
Leon Downey, executive director of the city's Department of Tourism, said gross business receipts were up 5 percent through October in a city where nearly every business is related to tourism. Lodging expenditures were up 7 percent.
"2010 has been a very good turnaround year for Pigeon Forge," Downey said.
Another factor that could have cut into park visits was road construction.
Last spring, three important visitor routes were closed at the same time. Those included Cades Cove Loop Road, Clingman's Dome Road and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The later was closed through the summer.
Outside the park, major road construction continues on state Rt. 66 — the major tourism route to the Smokies from Interstate 40 through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
The extensive project began in 2009 and is being done in three phases. More than 41,000 vehicles travel the route every day.
Yvette Martinez, a spokeswoman in Knoxville for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said the completed project will provide a six-lane route with a wide grassy median and turn lanes for businesses and tourist attractions.
The Pigeon Forge portion of the plan was completed earlier, Martinez said. The current work is improving Rt. 66 from the interstate to Sevierville.
"The contracts for Phase 2 were let in August 2010," Martinez said. "That phase is scheduled for completion in November 2012."
Since bidding has not begun for Phase 3, a total project completion time hasn't been set.