The mountains surrounding Asheville have long drawn nature lovers for their beauty and potential for hiking, backpacking and other outdoor excursions. But as the Western North Carolina hub continues to ride a decadeslong tourism wave, Transylvania County, just to the southwest of the city, has also started to receive an influx of new visitors — and the challenges that go along with becoming a popular tourist destination.
Clark Lovelace, executive director of the Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority, says he remembers a particularly busy tourist season in the summer of 2016 that saw the area’s parks reaching or surpassing the recommended number of visitors per day.
“That was when you just started to hear the phrase ‘getting loved to death,’” says Lovelace. “The best example would be at Sliding Rock. Their parking lot is full most of the day during most of the summer, so you have people going and wanting to enjoy it that actually can’t enjoy it. It creates less of an enjoyable user experience, [and] in some cases, can create a less safe experience.”
In 2017, the county’s tourism board launched the Transylvania Always initiative, which has since invested thousands of occupancy tax dollars into everything from hiking trail restoration to French Broad River cleanup. That nature-focused approach, says Lovelace, may offer other county tourism agencies new insight into promoting visitation while maintaining the integrity of the region’s unique mountain landscape.
“I really don’t know of anywhere else, particularly anywhere else of our small size, that is doing anything similar,” says Lovelace. “I think for a variety of reasons, our board has focused on going beyond marketing and promoting and bringing visitors here, and saw our role as one that goes a little deeper.”
Know your role
Established in 1985, Transylvania County Tourism functions much like other tourism-driving entities across the country, says Lovelace, who also serves as the executive director of the Brevard/Transylvania Chamber of Commerce. Like the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, the TCT’s Asheville-area counterpart, the quasi-governmental agency is mandated to draw overnight visitors using money collected from the county’s 5% occupancy tax. (Buncombe County’s tax is currently 6%.)
Two-thirds of the TCT’s occupancy tax revenue — roughly $922,000 in the last fiscal year — must be used for tourism advertising and public relations efforts, compared to 75% for the BCTDA. The remaining 33% is allocated for other tourism-related expenditures.
For years, that 33% supported the county’s visitor center and brochures that guide guests to the area’s state and national parks, including Gorges State Park, DuPont State Recreational Forest and Pisgah National Forest. But as Transylvania County began to grow in popularity among tourists and adventure seekers, the rising number of visitors took a toll on the parks’ wildlife habitats, according to John Cottingham, founder and executive director of the Pisgah Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Pisgah National Forest.
“Over the last few decades, you’ve seen significant increases in usership and decreases in federal funding, and so there’s been degradation on trails and some negative effects on aquatic life in the rivers,” Cottingham explains.
After a 2016 meeting with state and national park representatives, Lovelace says that the seven-member TCT board saw its role shifting from strictly promoting tourism in the area to stewarding one of the area’s greatest economic drivers. The following year, the board decided to concentrate funds on protecting Transylvania County’s natural resources.
“As visitors and users of our recreational assets, unfortunately, we do have an impact,” Lovelace says. “We want to help deal with the impact that the visitor has on some of these natural recreational assets and we also want to create a safe and enjoyable user experience.”
A shared mission
That new focus led the tourism board to partner with established conservation leaders, such as the Pisgah Conservancy and the Pisgah Chapter of Trout Unlimited, to develop what Lovelace calls “shovel-ready projects” that benefited the county’s tourism economy and aligned with local sustainability efforts.
The first such collaboration was an extensive waterfall safety campaign aimed at informing visitors and reducing injuries in the area’s parks. Over three years, TCT spent roughly $35,000 on media days, public service announcements, digital advertising and other safety promotion efforts.
“This was the primary common concern amongst all three [parks]: waterfall safety,” Lovelace says. “Because we’re not an amusement park with a ride attendant holding your hand as you get on, it is something that is a challenge to manage. We want to make it as safe as possible, so we said, ‘Let’s make that our first focus.’”
Last year, the authority invested approximately $50,000 — over 16% of the roughly $304,000 available for tourism-related expenditures — toward sustainability projects in the area, including $10,000 to supplement county funds for debris removal in the French Broad River by the Transylvania County Soil and Water Conservation District and $20,000 to support the recently completed Cantrell Creek Trail project in Mills River, which was rerouted to reduce its wildlife impact. Lovelace notes that $100,000 is budgeted toward Transylvania Always for the current fiscal year.
“A lot of these species require clear, cold water to thrive, and when you get the sedimentation down in the water, it sort of fills the little gaps in the stream where the little creatures live — bugs and things that the fish and hellbenders and larger species live on,” Cottingham says about the Cantrell Creek project. “We moved the trail up to the slope above the stream, and so now we’ve got those two segregated in a way that is really good for the environment. It’s a beautiful new trail as well.”
“That’s directly dealing with the impact of the visitor,” adds Lovelace.
Apples and oranges?
Like the TCT, the BCTDA is required by state law to use the majority of its occupancy tax revenue — approximately $23 million last year — toward tourism advertising. The remaining 25% of funds flow into the agency’s Tourism Product Development Fund to support tourism-related capital projects.
Unlike those of its southern counterpart, however, the BCTDA’s investments have largely centered on community-based cultural and arts projects, including grants to the YMI Cultural Center and the African American Heritage Museum. Stephanie Brown, president and CEO of the Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, says that difference reflects each area’s specific strengths and challenges.
“Every community is different and has different priorities,” Brown wrote in an Oct. 18 email to Xpress. “Our TPDF program is inherently community-based because the applications come from community organizations. … Transylvania County Tourism faces different challenges — they ‘own’ waterfalls, which have specific public safety issues.”
Brown also points to BCTDA funding for outdoor projects, such as $25,000 to RiverLink in 2014 to create river access at the Pearson Bridge in Asheville, $2.25 million for the Woodfin Greenway and Blueway in 2017 and $6 million in 2018 for the Enka Recreation Destination — which includes a greenway and riparian protection along Hominy Creek in addition to several new sports facilities — as efforts to promote outdoor recreation in Buncombe County.
“It’s also worth noting that the quality of the French Broad has dramatically improved as the number of people who have wanted access to it has increased,” Brown wrote. “The marketing and promotion the TDA has done that brings customers to spend money at locally [owned] businesses has supported a tremendous growth in outfitters, plus infrastructure like water access. Our marketing has made it much easier for these tourism entrepreneurs to start up and be sustainable.”
Back in Transylvania County, Lovelace notes that the authority’s sustainability initiative has largely been embraced by the area’s residents.
“A very nice bonus has been [that the initiative has] definitely showed a lot of locals that Transylvania County Tourism is willing and able to do meaningful things to help our area — not just our local economy, but also help ensure that these incredible natural recreational assets that we have are going to be here for years to come,” Lovelace explains.
“I think it’s right on target,” adds Cottingham. “There’s an appreciation for these things, and I just think it’s entirely appropriate for these kinds of funding mechanisms to support those resources. It’s really enhanced the tourist experience and maintained the resources that they’re all coming to see in the first place.”
While Lovelace says that other regional county tourism agencies may begin to follow TCT’s lead, he acknowledges that factors such as local governments and area-specific assets make it hard to compare destinations.
“I think there are many destinations that are also starting to realize that they have a role that is more to play than is just marketing and promoting,” he notes. “At the same time, I think everywhere is a little different. I’m proud of the fact that I feel like we have a comprehensive initiative that is doing good in multiple ways.”