The outdoor allure of East Tennessee has pushed Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge to the top of getaway lists and delivered encouraging trends for local attractions that bank on wide-open spaces.
"What we still hear from all the research is that travelers are looking for places that are safe," said Susan Harris, CEO of See Rock City Inc., after the Chattanooga Tourism Summit last week. Rock City on Lookout Mountain had strong results in 2020 despite the spring shutdown, and it has made the most of its outdoor attractions, she said.
"We know there is demand, we know people want to travel," Harris said. "We had a really strong fourth quarter, actually."
The website TripAdvisor ranked Gatlinburg the top trending U.S. travel destination based on growth in popularity and positive reviews, while Pigeon Forge came in fourth on the list.
"The visibility that comes with more people visiting Tennessee is certainly good for Chattanooga," said Barry White, CEO of the Chattanooga Tourism Co. "We know outdoor experiences will continue to be a draw for travelers, who are looking for activities that feel safe."
In terms of hotel occupancy, Chattanooga came in second, behind only Gatlinburg, in 2020 across Tennessee, said Jennifer Foster of STR, an international travel research company.
"Gatlinburg has led the way in terms of performance," she said during the Chattanooga Tourism Summit. "However, the Chattanooga area is second to Gatlinburg."
Despite being closed for part of 2020, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw a near-record number of visitors, according to the tourism site visitmysmokies.com.
In 2020, the park had about 12.1 million visitors, compared to 12.5 million in 2019 — the first time the park broke 12 million visitors. The park also broke monthly visitation records every month from August through December, according to the site.
Top trending travel destinations
1. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
2. St. Augustine, Florida
3. Fort Myers Beach, Florida
4. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
5. Moab, Utah
6. Marco Island, Florida
7. Estes Park, Colorado
8. Hilton Head, South Carolina
9. Clearwater, Florida
10. Jackson, Wyoming
Chattanooga and other smaller cities have consistently fared better than major metros throughout the pandemic, Foster said.
"Large urban markets have underperformed other markets in the pandemic," she said. "The top 25 has really been hurting throughout the U.S."
While large group and business travel "fell off a cliff" in 2020, consumer-level travel was still brisk, with 77% of consumers in a TripAdvisor survey saying they had taken an overnight trip inside the U.S. in 2020, according to data presented last week at the tourism summit.
"In fact, a full 25% of those domestic travelers took three or more trips," said Steven Paganelli, TripAdvisor group head of destination marketing, Americas.
Those long weekends and family road trips were good news for Chattanooga's hotels, Foster said.
"Weekly transient demand performance since September 2020 has matched 2019 levels, and in two months exceeded 2019 levels," she said. "What you've lost in group, you've been making up in that transient performance and demand."
Road trips are also driving demand for fuel, said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy.
"Last week's gasoline demand was just 1% below the pre-pandemic level, an extremely bullish factor likely to continue driving gas and oil prices up in the short term," he said.
"It's no longer a question of if we'll see gasoline demand return to near normal this year but when, and will oil producers rise to the occasion and be able to quickly ramp up output, or are we going to see the highest summer prices since 2014 until they jump into action?"
The higher demand is pushing up prices for fuel. Gas prices in Chattanooga are the highest for this time of the year since 2014.
Chattanooga gas prices have risen 9.1 cents per gallon in the past week, averaging $2.60/gallon as of Monday, according to GasBuddy's daily survey of 170 stations in Chattanooga. Gas prices in Chattanooga are 39.0 cents per gallon higher than a month ago and stand 68.9 cents per gallon higher than a year ago.
According to the Associated Press, the Transportation Security Administration screened more than 1.3 million people both Friday and Sunday, setting a new high since the coronavirus outbreak devastated travel a year ago. Airlines believe the numbers are heading up, with more people booking flights for spring and summer.
"Our last three weeks have been the best three weeks since the pandemic hit, and each week has been better than the one prior," American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said Monday.
Contact Mary Fortune at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.