- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

ROANOKE (AP) — The number of visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia dropped by nearly 20 percent last year, the largest decrease in recent memory.

Parkway officials said they suspected tourists stayed away from the scenic 469-mile mountaintop drive last year because of abnormally wet weather.

“So much of traveling and visiting the Blue Ridge Parkway is weather-dependent, and we had one of the rainiest springs and summers on record,” said Phil Noblitt, the National Park Service’s spokesman for the parkway. “It had to be the weather.”

Parkway officials recorded about 6.6 million visits in Virginia last year, down 19 percent from 2002’s 8.1 million. On North Carolina’s stretch of the winding road, visitation dropped to 13.7 million from 15.3 million in 2002, a decrease of nearly 11 percent.

The two-lane parkway runs along 217 miles in Virginia, from just outside Waynesboro south to the North Carolina line. From there, the road winds 252 miles through North Carolina to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Asheville.

Parkway visits help drive the tourism economies of communities along the Blue Ridge. A 1997 study found the typical North Carolina parkway visitor spends $147 in surrounding counties on expenses such as food, lodging, gas and souvenirs, while in Virginia, the average parkway visitor spends almost $90. The study estimated the total economic impact of the parkway at more than $2 billion annually.

Overall, the number of visits to the parkway in 2003 dropped more than 13 percent, to 20.28 million from 23.4 million in 2002. Counting only recreational visits and not commuters, the drop was 14.8 percent, to 18.3 million from 21.5 million in 2002.

In Virginia, recreational visits dropped about 20 percent, to 6.1 million from 7.6 million.

The parkway, a popular attraction for hikers, campers, bird-watchers and leaf-peepers, was hammered by heavy rains last year. According to the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, the region that includes Southwest Virginia and northwest North Carolina received nearly 37 inches of rain from April through September.

In an average year, the area receives less than 24 inches during those months.

Along with the wet weather, Mr. Noblitt speculated that some people stayed away from the parkway last year because of a struggling economy, the war in Iraq and a temporary spike in gasoline prices.

Mr. Noblitt said that despite last year’s decline, the long-term trend has been toward increased visitation. He predicted better weather and pent-up demand from tourists who stayed away last year would result in an increase in 2004.

“I’m confident that this is just a blip,” Mr. Noblitt said.

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