On a recent trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, I experienced yet another reminder of the flip side to America the beautiful when visiting the resort towns on the edge of the park. Gatlinburg, Tennessee which presents itself as the gateway to the Smokies certainly looked as bright as ever, but I was a bit taken back when rounding corners here and there and coming across a few hotels in prime locations that were completely shut down and dilapidated. It was eye opening, to say the least.
Unlike most all of the other major National Parks, Great Smoky Mountain National Park has no concessionaires within the park boundaries. There is no Great Smoky Lodge. No historic restaurants or cafes even. While the park is staffed by Rangers, all of the places to stay and eat are in towns on the park’s boundaries. So competition is what drives most business in these areas.
The raw numbers from visitation to the Smokies has gone fairly unchanged for the last decade, with the park still being far and away the most visited in the nation with over 9 million visitors a year. So what’s happening? Why so many abandoned, ramshackle hotels and businesses?
Whether our leaders want to admit it or not, or how the economists want to define it, the Great Recession is still not over for a great many people. With less than half the population actually employed full-time, and wages stagnant for years on end for many others, working people simply do not have the disposable cash they did in years gone by.
During the Great Depression while numerous companies went completely bankrupt, there were some industries that flourished. One of which was the chocolate industry. You see, while people could no longer afford to spend money on fancy things like new cars, houses, or vacations, they could afford to buy themselves and their loved ones simple comforts of life, like chocolates. The same is happening today.
So while they have the time, and can often afford the gas to visit and drive through places like the Smokies, they cannot afford to stay there anymore. And just like the Great Depression, during this Great Recession the value of chocolate companies remained high during the worst years, and has had very large market gains since. This reflective coin of society, with chocolate on one side and decaying hotels in popular tourist areas on the other, is a microcosm for reality for many people.It’s like chocolate, for vacation.