By Scott McKie B.P.
One Feather staff
More Americans will be on the Holiday Road this week than last year at this time according to a major travel organization.
According to AAA, 38.4 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more this Thanksgiving week compared to 37.8 million who traveled last year – a 1.4% increase. Automobile travel is expected to increase 2.1 percent (33.2 million from 32.5 million) and air travel is expected to decrease (2.3 million from 2.5 million).
How many of those auto travelers come to Cherokee may be dependent on getting the word out about routes around a major rockslide that occurred last month on I-40W – one of the major interstates bringing tourists to the area.
Mary Jane Ferguson, EBCI Marketing and Promotion director, commented, “The I-40W rockslide and the NC DOT’s routing signs have impacted visitation to Cherokee and Western North Carolina during November. Following the I-40W road closure, travelers thought they must follow the directional signage posted on I-40W and I-26 west to I-81S to Tennessee. This curtailed travel west of Asheville to Cherokee and beyond.”
She continued, “After speaking with a representative of NC DOT, I was informed that traffic signs were now routing vehicles to WNC via I-40 to Exit 27. Not only has Cherokee been impacted by the rock slide, but other towns such as Waynesville, Sylva and Bryson City are seeing a decline in their visitation since the rockslide occurred. Traffic to Exit 27 usually runs 40,000 vehicles a day. Currently, the traffic count is 20,000 vehicles per day.”
Darlene Waycaster, Cherokee Chamber of Commerce director, said getting the word out about the rock slide and routes to the Cherokee area are important. “With two major road closings in North Carolina due to rockslides, Interstate 40 at the Tennessee – North Carolina border and US Hwy. 64 in the Ocoee Gorge, the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce has and is still working with NC Commerce and NCDOT to inform visitors that they can still travel to Cherokee and the quickest way do so. The Chamber developed a map of each road closing and they along with the Chamber’s website is now listed at www.VisitNC.com. The map and direction is also at www.CherokeeSmokies.com. We believe that the road closing, if managed correctly, could bring more visitors and traffic into Cherokee.”
According to the North Carolina Division of Commerce, “Businesses hurt by the rock slide may be eligible for help from the Small Business Administration (SBA), based on a request from Gov. Bev Perdue. The SBA has a program that provides emergency loans to companies that have lost substantial business due to hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides and other natural disasters.”
NCDOT reported last week, “Weather temporarily halted work on the rockslide last week, but a fleet of nearly 20 trucks will haul the debris east on 1-40 to a nearby U.S. Forest Service site. The Forest Service and the N.C. Dept. of Transportation will use the material for future road repair.”
TRAVEL IN GENERAL
Glen MacDonnell, AAA’s director of Travel Services, said the beginning of an economic recovery is helping the travel industry. “Although far too many Americans remain unemployed or under financial stress, AAA’s projected increase in Thanksgiving travel from one year ago is another hopeful sign that economic conditions are stabilizing and improving in some areas. We can also be thankful the gradual recovery we have been seeing in the U.S. travel industry since the start of the summer is continuing.”
Waycaster said things are picking up overall for tourism, “2009 has been a good year for tourism according to the Cherokee Chamber business members and much better than what was expected going into the year. Nearly all campgrounds and cabins recorded they had a better 2009, than in years past. Most other lodging properties such as hotels/motels, gift shops, and restaurants saw a better 2009 than they did in 2008, but not as good years past.”
She continued, “Three years ago the Chamber began to encourage Cherokee businesses to participate in the Festival of Lights Celebration. The Festival offers holiday merriment in the Downtown River Bend and throughout Cherokee. It all begins with the flip of a switch on November 22. The Chamber is holding the second annual Cherokee Native Christmas downtown Cherokee at the River Bend stage area on Saturday, Dec. 12 from 10:00am-2:00pm. When we created this event, we were trying to do something to generate an economic impact during the winter season when we don’t have a lot of visitors. Last year the event drew about 200 spectators to the downtown area. The event features Native American storytelling, dancing, music, arts and craft demonstrations, and a visit from Santa.”