True colors

Predictions:

• Continuing tension between old and new
• Parkway views essential to attracting visitors
• Overuse could hamper outdoor recreation

The same things that put Asheville on the tourism map stand a good chance of continuing to bring people here for decades to come—provided that we manage and maintain those attractions wisely. That’s the message from assorted local pundits, who believe the dual lure of the Blue Ridge Mountains and our lively arts-and-culture scene will keep on attracting visitors in the future. In 2004-05, overnight visitors to Buncombe County had a total economic impact of about $1 billion, according to the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.

“By 2027, much of American society will be baby boomers,” notes C. Brenden Martin, author of Tourism in the Mountain South: A Double-Edged Sword (University of Tennessee Press, 2007). “And after that come the ‘millennials.’”

The key to attracting all these tourists is authenticity, Martin told Xpress. “They crave the real thing.” And Asheville has it in spades—especially compared with places like Pigeon Forge, Tenn., or Branson, Mo.

“The history of craft here is authentic. It has not been drained off in a Disneyland approach,” notes Becky Anderson, executive director of HandMade in America, a local nonprofit that promotes the region as a crafts mecca and helps communities develop “heritage tourism.” Anderson doesn’t see that changing in the future, either: “Craft and the handmade items will still have their legacy position,” she says.

And when baby boomers hit the road, they want more than a museum, says Martin: They want the tactile experience of seeing things made and immersing themselves in a culture.

Even though people can now buy craft items online, “There is an antimovement for every movement,” he says, and Asheville gives visitors a whole-environment experience.

Craig Madison, board chair of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, agrees. “Experiential travel is not just going and seeing, but immersing,” he emphasizes. Besides art, music and food, however, those future tourists will want top-of-the-line accommodations, says Madison, who’s also president and CEO of the Grove Park Inn.

The Ellington, a 23-story hotel-and-condominium development proposed for Biltmore Avenue, is designed to meet that need, he notes. The Grove Park Inn is a partner in the project, which is now working its way though the approval process.

“Travelers of the future will have amazingly high expectations,” says Madison, predicting “an exponential increase in the level of service that is expected. Just offering a place to sleep and plumbing won’t be enough.”

But some local activists are concerned about protecting the city’s skyline, and The Ellington has already encountered its share of opposition. Ironically, Asheville’s mid-20th-century economic slump helped preserve the architectural legacy that’s now part of the city’s charm: While other places were razing their old buildings in the name of urban renewal, Asheville’s remained safely boarded up. And with those historic structures now restored to shining life, new construction downtown will always have a lot to live up to, argues Martin.

The same holds true in the arenas of scenic beauty and outdoor recreation: The key to maintaining Asheville’s tourism niche, some say, is protecting the resources that people come to see. Blue Ridge Parkway officials are constantly keeping an eye on development within the viewshed, notes Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis. The Parkway is also working with land trusts and donors to make ridgelines that are visible from the scenic roadway off-limits to development. Another big concern is the region’s poor air quality, which reduces visibility. Unless we address that problem, he warns, “The primary reason people come here will be lost.”

Anderson concurs. “None of [this] will survive as authentic and intact unless we secure the protection of the land,” she says. “We have to learn to say no sometimes.”

As for outdoor recreation, the very popularity of this area with climbers, cyclists and paddlers causes problems of its own. “It’s pretty much all here,” notes Jonathan Poston, editor of the Asheville Outdoor Adventure News, an e-mail newsletter. “The real issue is overuse … how to control the impact of the flood of people.” So far, it has fallen to volunteer groups to clean up and maintain favorite areas.

The hospitality industry, argues Madison, has as much interest as anyone in keeping Asheville desirable. “Signage, air quality … in tourism, we are concerned about everything,” he says.

But if the city wants to maintain its position as a tourist draw, “We will have to continue reinventing ourselves to continue to be competitive,” he asserts, citing his business philosophy: “All things evolve or die.”

Madison also emphasizes the links between tourism and other sectors of the area’s economy. A lot of local business owners and residents, he says, have one thing in common: They came here first as tourists.

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