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Returning to the Smokies 6 months after a deadly wildfire

  • In this May 20, 2017 photo, a new chairlift attraction is under construction in downtown Gatlinburg, Tenn. A deadly wildfire in November of 2016 put a dent in the tourism industry, but signs of growth are returning. (AP Photo/Kristin Hall) Kristin Hall

  • In this May 20, 2017, people walk through downtown Gatlinburg, Tenn. A deadly wildfire in November of 2016 put a dent in the tourism industry, but signs of growth are returning. (AP Photo/Kristin Hall) Kristin Hall

  • In this May 20, 2017 photo, a concrete pad remains where a building once stood in Gatlinburg, Tenn. A deadly wildfire in November of 2016 put a dent in the tourism industry, but signs of growth are returning. (AP Photo/Kristin Hall) Kristin Hall

  • In this May 20, 2017 photo, a worker at Aunt Mahalia's candy store can be seen through a store window. A deadly wildfire in November of 2016 put a dent in the tourism industry, but signs of growth are returning. (AP Photo/Kristin Hall) Kristin Hall

  • In this May 20, 2017 photo, a handmade sign stands in front of the fire-damaged Mountain Laurel Chalets. A deadly wildfire in November of 2016 put a dent in the tourism industry, but signs of growth are returning. (AP Photo/Kristin Hall) Kristin Hall

  • In this May 20, 2017 photo, people wait to cross the street in Gatlinburg, Tenn. A deadly wildfire in November of 2016 put a dent in the tourism industry, but signs of growth are returning. (AP Photo/Kristin Hall) Kristin Hall

  • In this May 20, 2017 photo, Joe Guenther, owner of the Day Hiker store, checks out a customer in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Guenther said business has been down since a deadly wildfire in November of 2016 put a dent in the tourism industry, but signs of growth are returning. (AP Photo/Kristin Hall) Kristin Hall

  • In this May 20, 2017 photo, a fire-damaged building overlooks cars driving through downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. A deadly wildfire in November of 2016 put a dent in the tourism industry, but signs of growth are returning. (AP Photo/Kristin Hall) Kristin Hall

  • In this May 20, 2017 photo, cars travel through downtown Gatlinburg, Tenn. A deadly wildfire in November of 2016 put a dent in the tourism industry, but signs of growth are returning. (AP Photo/Kristin Hall) Kristin Hall

  • In this May 20, 2017 photo, fencing surrounds areas of the Laurel Point Resort in Gatlinburg, Tenn., that were damaged in a wildfire in 2016. A deadly wildfire in November of 2016 put a dent in the tourism industry, but signs of growth are returning. (AP Photo/Kristin Hall) Kristin Hall



Associated Press
Tuesday, June 13, 2017

When Dolly Parton dreamed up the idea of an amusement park in East Tennessee, she said it would be “a fantasy city, a Smoky Mountain fairyland.”

Over the next three decades, Dollywood became the state’s biggest ticketed attraction, with nearly 2.5 million visitors annually. Tourism in Pigeon Forge, where Dollywood is located, regularly brings in $1 billion a year in revenue. Nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a massive draw, too, with a record 11.3 million visitors last year.

But a deadly wildfire last November scorched a path through the park and surrounding Sevier County, threatening to disrupt the only industry the region has: tourism. Gale force winds spread the fire in a wild, erratic path for 24 hours. Fourteen people died. More than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed.

Images and news of families fleeing the wildfires were terrifying. Growing up in Tennessee, I was one of those millions who’d vacationed there all my life. When I was sent to Gatlinburg last year to report on the aftermath of the fire, I worried that many of the sites of my favorite childhood memories had gone up in smoke.

But while tourism took a hit, Dollywood and Pigeon Forge, along with most of downtown, were unaffected. And in late May, six months after the fire and just before the start of the summer season, I returned for a visit.

This time, I went as a parent, bringing my own daughter to make new memories.

My family rode the same roller coasters and water rides my brother and I rode as kids. We saw cowboys and cowgirls at Dollywood’s Dixie Stampede show perform the same amazing tricks on their horses. Three generations of my family including my parents, my brother and his wife and his daughter, climbed aboard Dollywood’s old steam train.

Smokies tourism industry goes hand-in-hand with Parton’s famous brand of family friendly entertainment.

But tourism officials say the blaze has created a perception problem. Tourism over the winter and spring was abnormally slow.

Tourists “see those images, which are devastating and they think the whole mountains, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are gone,” said Pigeon Forge tourism director Leon Downey.

The reality is that many tourist businesses, from go-kart parks to restaurants, were unscathed. And while hundreds of rental properties were damaged, plenty of cabins and hotels are available.