Tourist destination Gatlinburg open for business one year after deadly wildfires

GATLINBURG, TN (WBTV) - One of the south's most popular tourist areas is back open for business a year after deadly wildfires ravaged through the area.

Chances are you've been to Gatlinburg, Tennessee or nearby Pigeon Forge, which is home to Dollywood. The tourist industry was hit hard by the 2016 wildfires but we're learning business is back, and better than ever.

It was one year ago this month that wildfires scorched through the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area. Thousands of people were displaced as homes and businesses were evacuated.

When the fires were over, 14 people had died and nearly 2,500 structures were destroyed. Damage was estimated to total more than $500 million.

"The national media, of course, came in and did a pretty good job, but unfortunately a lot of folks thought that Gatlinburg completely burned down and that just wasn't the case here," Mark Adams, who is the CEO and president of Gatlinburg's Convention and Visitors Bureau, said.

And that meant acting fast after the fires. Tourism is the main industry in Gatlinburg which is a town of approximately 4,000 people and hosts more than 10 million visitors a year.

Local officials knew they had to get word out that although they might be down, they weren't out.

"And a lot of our businesses here are small independent shop owners.  So they're retailers, they're...they own hotels, they own cabins, they own restaurants," Adams said.  "So it was really important for us to get that word out like we said, Gatlinburg was open, because if our tourists did not return to the area, then we faced another challenge which would have been restaurants closing, retailers closing, employees being laid off. So it was important for us to again, get that marketing message out there that we were OK.

And they are OK especially when you consider all what the area went through. Since the fires, new attractions and motels have opened and others are on the way.

"It is hard to relive the circumstances of Nov. 28, 2016.  And so much of our story is  involved around the events of that day," Marci Claude, who is the  public relations manager of Gatlinburg CVB, said.  "But how you get through it is the progress that we've made as a city, as a community.  And we have so many accomplishments over the last year."

When visitors come to visit Gatlinburg, many find it hard to believe that just a year ago things looked very bleak.

"It is really interesting when you do hear folks say, "where was the fires?" And that makes my heart happy.  That makes me feel good," Claude said.

The mayor of Gatlinburg calls the residents of the town "mountain tough."

"And that's something we've been saying in Gatlinburg for this past year as you know, the citizens and the community…we really are mountain tough.  And the resiliencey, that's really helped us bounce back," Adams said.

The town of Gatlinburg will be holding a special one year anniversary observation on Nov. 28 where a special memorial and tribute to those who died in the fire will be unveiled.


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