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Impact of WNC’s Heritage Tourism Industry is Focus of Research

By Jane Nicholson

072205travel_v_dl.jpgBOONE – Professors at Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University have received a $108,000 award from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area to conduct research on the impact of heritage tourism in Western North Carolina.

072205travel_g_dl.jpgThe 25-county BRNHA region includes Mount Mitchell, the Linville Gorge Wilderness, the New River, Grandfather Mountain, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Biltmore Estate, and the Qualla Boundary, which is home to the Cherokee nation.

072205travel_b_dl.jpg“The National Heritage Area designation is being shepherded by the National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior,” said Michael R. Evans, a professor of management in Appalachian’s Walker College of Business and director of the college’s hospitality and tourism management program. “Like the National Parks, we hope this area will become an internationally recognized vacation destination.”

The BRNHA is one of 27 heritage areas in the United States. The designation, approved by the U.S. Congress, includes up to $1 million a year in funding for 10 years to protect, preserve, develop and enhance the cultural and natural heritage of the region, and stimulate economic activity.

“We are fortunate that Western North Carolina has traditionally had a strong tourism economy. It’s logical to look to that established economy to replace some of the traditional manufacturing-based jobs that have been lost off shore,” said Penn Dameron, BRNHA executive director.

There are three components to the contracted study. The WCU research team will track economic data submitted quarterly by businesses in the region. Professors from Appalachian will survey visitors to BRNHA to learn about their travel and spending patterns, if they are aware of the area’s heritage designation, and if their visit was spurred by BRNHA designation. Both groups will track regional economic data being published by various sources, such as the N.C. Department of Commerce and the Travel Industry Association of America.

“There are tons of economic data published by different sources, but it has never been pulled together in one unit,” Evans said. “We will look at that data by region – the Smoky Mountain Host tourism region, Asheville/Blue Ridge Mountain Host region and High Country Host region.”

Contract participants from WCU will develop a Web-based database that will be used to collect economic data, such as gross revenue, employment figures and hourly wage figures. The information submitted by participating employers will be used to create a “tourism barometer,” according to Assistant Professor Steve Ha from WCU’s Center for Regional Development.

The WCU team also will help develop and analyze a survey that will be distributed to visitors at 40 major attractions in the region. They also will analyze data from the U.S. Census and other sources to develop a model that will be used to analyze and forecast the strength of the regional tourism industry.

” This will be the first comprehensive economic study of the 25-county region,” Ha said.

Dameron said that like a doctor’s check up, the data will provide a baseline for assessing the health of the BRNHA’s economy, offer insight into ways the tourism sector can be improved and note where untapped markets exist.

Others at Appalachian assisting with the project are Professors Dinesh S. Davé and James E. Stoddard. Assistant Professor Steve Ha and Nell Leatherwood from WCU’s Center for Regional Development and Associate Professor Dan Clapper are also participating in the project.

Evans said the information will help gauge the success of various marketing strategies that will be developed to promote the heritage area.

” I don’t know if people have a handle on how quickly the economy in the state is changing,” Evans said. “Because of our unique situation in the mountains and what’s going on in economic development, we aren’t going to have the traditional manufacturing and farming offerings, so one viable alternative is tourism.”

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For more information about the Blue Ridge National Heritage area, visit http://www.blueridgeheritage.com

Contacts: Mike Evans, Appalachian State University, (828) 262-6222

Penn Dameron, Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, (828) 828-687-7234

Steve Ha, Western Carolina University (828) 227-3454

Picture Captions: Destinations such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, first photo, Grandfather Mountain and the Biltmore Estate help drive North Carolina’s tourism industry. Professors at Appalachian State and Western Carolina universities are looking at ways to better promote a 25-county corridor, known at the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, by studying who visits the area and why. (Photos One and Three Courtesy of NC Division of Tourism, Film, and Sports Development and available at http://www.visitnc.com/press_image_library.asp

Photo two by University Photographer Mike Rominger)