Carter County drawing 'virtual' tourists and more

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Tourism, the state's second-largest industry, generates billions of dollars annually in Tennessee. Last week, the local Tourism Council celebrated that industry's impact on Carter County as part of National Tourism Week.
   Larry Gobble, tourism director for the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce, said that in the past year, 258,806 people took a virtual tour of Elizabethton and Carter County by visiting the Chamber's Web site,
   While it's too early to tell whether they liked what they saw enough to fill up their tanks and drive the distance, reports from previous years show some folks found the area enticing.
   Gobble said tourists spent $11.26 million in Carter County in 1989. In 2000, Gobble said the U.S. Travel Data Center Report shows that tourists to the county spent $20.24 million. In 1989, 140 tourism jobs generated a payroll of $1.65 million. In 2000, there were 160 jobs and a payroll of $3.18 million.
   "These dollars enable new businesses to be established and older ones to thrive," Gobble said. "There are plenty of opportunities to invest in tourism. Opportunities exit in campgrounds, attractions, festivals, outdoor recreation and other services that tourists would find helpful during their visit."
   But in order to draw tourists to the area, we have to market the resources that are available, he said. "We aren't a Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge-type destination, but what we do have is 'Heritage Tourism,' plus our history makes us an interesting place to visit."
   Gobble said Carter County's natural beauty and opportunity for outdoor activities appeal to visitors. "Watauga River has one of only two 'Quality Trout Sections' in the state of Tennessee. This attracts many anglers throughout the year to our rivers and adds greatly to the tourism trade," he said.
   There are also numerous sites available for tent and recreational vehicle camping, the Appalachian Trail for hiking and backpacking, and opportunities for mountain biking and cycling. Watauga Lake offers a wealth of water recreation, including fishing, boating and sailing. Picnicking sites are plentiful along the roadway which winds around the lake through Cherokee National Forest.
   Because Gobble's office has limited advertising dollars, Carter County has joined in cooperative ventures with neighboring counties to get the word out. Brochures are distributed at welcome centers in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina.
   "Since the terrible events of 9/11 and the downturn in the economy, our thoughts were that we would see a big decline in tourism, but that does not seem to be the case," Gobble said.
   "Indicators are that tourism will remain about the same as last year and possibly show a slight gain. One of our main goals is to attract visitors that are within driving distance. Fifty percent of the nation's population is within driving distance of Carter County," he said.
   Roan Mountain State Park is a popular destination. "Cabins and campgrounds stay booked, especially during the summer months," according to Gobble. The park offers hiking, tennis courts, heated swimming pool, and a conference center. It is also a favorite of photographers, who can't resist the beauty of the Roan when the rhododendron are in bloom.
   Gobble said Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area is living history at its best. "Throughout the year, Herb Roberts and his staff provide programs for visitors and bring our 18th century history alive."
   "The Wataugans," which depicts the settlement of Northeast Tennessee in the 1770s-1780s, is staged the last three weekends in July and has been adopted as the "Official Outdoor Drama for Tennessee."
   "Tourists are very interested in our heritage and history," Gobble said. "We are truly privileged to live in such a great place. I believe that the tourism industry will continue to grow in our area, and with our local residents investing in tourism-related activities, our county and city will continue to prosper."