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Tourism Spending per 10,000 People MapThe natural beauty of North Carolina’s mountain region has proven to be one of this area’s greatest economic assets, drawing tourists to enjoy its many state and national recreation areas, including the Nantahala National Forest, the Pisgah National Forest, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, ten state parks, and more than 264,000 acres of old-growth forest. The region is also home to the 56,000-acre Qualla Boundary, the reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation, a federally recognized Native American Tribe with about 14,000 registered members.

Providing 27,700 jobs during 2009, tourism represented five percent of the Mountain Resources Commission (MRC) region’s employment. Tourism Employment as a Percentage of Total Employment MapAbout 44 percent of the region’s tourism employment was located within the region’s only metropolitan statistical area – Asheville MSA – with 71 percent of these jobs located within Buncombe County alone.

While Buncombe County has the largest tourism economy in the region, it lags behind the leading tourism-driven economies found in Swain, Avery, Macon, and Watauga Counties. Swain County has the most tourism-intensive economy in the region. In 2009, 52 percent of Swain County employment was attributable to tourism, with tourists spending more than $16,800 per resident, and providing $358 per resident in local tax revenue. Tourism employed nearly 15 percent of Avery County’s workforce, and provided more than $5,000 in spending and $225 in local tax revenue per county resident in 2009.

Tourism represented 11.4 percent of employment in Watauga County, 8.5 percent in Macon County, 7.8 percent in Buncombe County, and 6.6 percent in Graham County. Per capita tourism spending during 2009 totaled $3,449 in Macon County and $3,426 in Watauga County, and represented per capita local tax revenues of $295 in Macon County, $137 in Watauga County, $124 in Jackson County, and $113 in Graham County.

Buncombe County held the largest share of the region’s total tourism expenditures in 2009 with 27 percent, followed by Swain County with nearly 10 percent, Henderson County with nearly 8 percent, and Watauga County with more than 7 percent. Counties with the highest tourism expenditures per tourism employee are: Alexander County with $150,000 per employee, Yancey County with $135,000 per employee, and Surry County with $124,000 per employee.

Leading Tourism Economy Counties

Tourism Expenditures


Tourism Employment


Tourism Expenditures per Capita


Local Tourism Taxes per Capita
















1 Buncombe $662   1 Buncombe 8,700   1 Swain $16,809   1 Swain $358
2 Swain $235   2 Swain 3,100   2 Avery $5,001   2 Macon $295
3 Henderson $190   3 Watauga 2,400   3 Macon $3,449   3 Avery $225
4 Watauga $175   4 Henderson 2,200   4 Watauga $3,426   4 Watauga $137
5 Rutherford $119   5-7 Avery / Haywood / Macon 1,200   5 Buncombe $2,778   5 Jackson $124
6 Macon $117   8 Rutherford 1,100   6 Graham $2,257   6 Graham $113

Recreation Areas

Recreation Areas MapThe region includes the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the most visited national park unit; the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (located in Western North Carolina and Tennessee), the most visited national park; and the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, two of the most visited national forests in the U.S. The Parkway winds through popular destination points such as Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River, and Mount Pisgah, known for its panoramic mountain views. Many visitors enjoy abundant rivers and waterfalls, including the highest waterfall in the eastern U.S. – Whitewater Falls, in Transylvania County. The Nantahala National Forest includes the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness, which contains one of the largest stands of old-growth trees in the eastern U.S. The Pisgah National Forest is the site of the Biltmore Forest School, the first forestry school in America, now open to the public as an educational and interpretive center. The North Carolina Arboretum near Asheville, NC, is one of the finest public gardens in the Southern Appalachians. Grandfather Mountain, elevation 5,946 feet above sea level, is a globally-recognized nature preserve featuring beautiful mountain scenery, a mile-high swinging bridge, and a nature museum, as well as trails, picnic areas, and naturalist programs.

The Biltmore Estate, also located in Asheville, is known worldwide as “America’s Largest Home.”  This private attraction includes a mansion with 250 rooms, 65 fireplaces, one indoor pool, a bowling alley, vineyards, an historic farm, crafts, and music performances. The estate annually draws approximately one million visitors to the Asheville area.

Outdoor recreation activities in Western North Carolina include innumerable hiking trails, including a 200-mile section of the famed Appalachian Trail. Top-ranked mountain biking, hunting, fishing, rafting, kayaking, canoeing, birding, rock climbing, camping, skiing, and even ziplining bring outdoor enthusiasts to the area. The ski slopes of Cataloochee, Sugar, and Beech Mountains and others summon winter sports travelers. Rivers such as the Nantahala, French Broad, Green, and Cheoah are among the region’s waterways, with world-class whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing, tubing, swimming, and other water fun. Asheville is repeatedly cited as one of the best travel destinations in the world, offering arts and crafts, outdoor adventures, eclectic cuisine, spas and resorts, public gardens, and more.

Who recreates here and why?

Tourist Activity Preferences GraphA 2008 study completed in the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area (BRNHA) counties found preferences of visitors differ with demographic and socioeconomic factors. It was discovered that a large portion of the visitors to the region come from those living nearby in North Carolina or from surrounding southeastern states. Of the 4,125 respondents, 23 percent identified themselves as day trippers, and 77 percent as overnight visitors. The average age of day trippers is 50 years old, and for overnight, 53 years old. Most respondents, day or overnight, fell between the ages of 46 to 65. This is slightly higher than that of travelers to the state as a whole, which had a mean age, in 2006, of 45.

Almost half of all visitors to the region have a college degree or a graduate degree, making the BRNHA group more highly educated when compared to the U.S. population, of which 27 percent has a college degree. Well over half of the visitors have higher household incomes than the national median household income. A majority of visitors travel in parties of two, as the median party size for both overnight guests and day trippers was 2.7.

The results indicate the highest preference is for outdoor recreation, followed by festivals and events, gardens or trails, crafts, Cherokee sites, music activities, and farms and orchards. Preferences also appear to differ among men and women. For example, the top activities for women were craft activities, while men rated outdoor recreation or ecotourism at the top of their lists. This data has proved useful in targeting tourism marketing efforts. The study also gives hints for development of tourism attractions that will appeal to particular visitor sectors.

Number of Visitors

Total Visitation to Federal Parks and Forests GraphFrom 1985 to 2009, the total number of recreation visits in the region’s national forests increased from 2.9 million to 6.8 million, an increase of 136 percent. From 1993–2002, the number of average annual visitors to the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway was 11.6 million. The number of visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee has varied slightly, but has remained around 9 million per year. In 2010, there were 14,517,118 recreation visits to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and 9,463,538 recreation visits to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The national forests in Western North Carolina, which offer a much broader range of recreational activities, are some of the most visited in the national forest system.

Lands Managed for Recreation

Lands Managed for Recreation MapWestern North Carolinians are currently negotiating a balance between the development and conservation of our unique natural resources. If development increases, there will be less open space and more fragmented natural environments. The region needs more and better paying jobs and faces significant challenges in meeting the costs of growth. An important expanding growth sector is tourism and outdoor recreation.

Scenarios that portray conservation versus development are not always the best option. The challenge to our mountain communities is to manage growth and foster mixed-use development while balancing green (natural) and gray (concrete or man-made) infrastructure.

Communities around the country are using resourceful policies to develop in ways that conserve natural lands and critical environmental areas, protect natural resources, restore previously developed land, and create jobs in the process. In Western North Carolina, the Linking Lands Project of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council is an example of a project that is using a sustainable development planning approach to identify a possible green infrastructure in Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania, and Madison Counties. The plan identifies a physical network of the region’s most valuable elements, including recreation lands, wildlife habitat, forestlands, water resources, farmlands, and cultural resources. This plan can serve as a planning resource for local governments, land trusts, landowners, and developers.

Smart growth is a related component of sustainable development that helps to reduce urban sprawl. The features that distinguish smart growth in a community vary, but, in general, smart growth development is town-centered, public transit- and pedestrian-oriented, and has a greater mix of housing, commercial, and retail uses than traditional sprawl development. It also preserves open space and critical environmental areas and takes advantage of compact building designs that will minimize impervious surfaces. 


Asheville: Anyway you like it. Accessed from:

Stoddard, J.E., M.R. Evans, and D.S. Dinesh. August 2008. “Sustainable tourism: The case of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.” Cornell Hospitality Quarterly.

Stynes, D.J. 2011. Economic benefits to local communities from national park visitation and payroll, 2010. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2011/481. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. 

Total Visitation for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 1985-2009. Accessed from:

USDA Forest Service, National Forests in North Carolina. Internal Annual Visitation and Receipt Report, 2000-2009.

USDI National Park Service, Blue Ridge Natural Heritage Area. Heritage and history, attractions and destinations. Accessed from:

West, Terry. 1991. Research in the USDA Forest Service: A Historian’s View: The Weeks Act and Eastern Forests. USDA Forest Service, WO History Unit.