Appalachian Tourism

Traffic approaching the Great Smoky Mountains National Park through Pigeon Forge.

Tim Ezzell and Rachel Chen are leading a study to better understand and improve Appalachian tourism.

Ezzell, lecturer and research scientist in the political science department, and Chen, professor in the Department of Retail, Hospitality and Tourism Management and director of the UT Center for Sustainable Business and Development, began the project in November.

“I thought it was (a) wonderful opportunity for people with different expertise (to) make a contribution to the Appalachian region,” Chen said.

To conduct the study, Ezzell, Chen and a team of researchers are using a mixed methods approach, combining quantitative and categorical data. In these areas of tourism, Chen will focus on conducting surveys from visitors and vendors for the quantitative analysis, while Ezzell will work on the site interviews and focus groups for the categorical information.

“We’ve learned that you can’t study Appalachian communities like you do other places. Most research like this is data-driven. Appalachian communities, however, are often very small. They don’t generate a lot of data, and in a lot of cases they don’t have anybody to collect it,” Ezzell said. “Together, those two elements (qualitative and categorical) help us build a complete and accurate picture of what’s going on.”

To aid in the research, Ezzell and Chen received a $200,000 competitive grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership that aims to create opportunities for economic development for people in the Appalachian area.

The study covers 205,000 square miles across 420 counties in 13 states and is one of the most comprehensive of its kind conducted by the commission. The final report will be published in 2019, but it is still early in the research project. The team is currently in the process of identifying key stakeholders and developing the surveys to distribute across the region.

The purpose of the research is to examine the trends in Appalachian tourism and to identify strategies that can help communities become more successful in that field. Along with local stakeholders, Ezzell said the team wants to understand visitors' perceptions of Appalachia, their motivations to come to the region and whether these perceptions change upon interacting with local communities.

Since tourism is one of the largest industries and revenue generators in East Tennessee, Ezzell hopes the research will help expand this activity across the region and improve visitor experience.

However, aside from impacts on business, the project also seeks to understand tourism from a social and community perspective.

“To the degree that tourism is seen as the world’s largest industry, there is still the need to understand human desire and behavior, along with (the) social power structures, history and touristic activities a community offers,” Stefanie Benjamin, assistant professor in the Department of Retail, Hospitality and Tourism Management and one of the team's qualitative researchers, said. “Thus, tourism is a sociocultural phenomenon and not merely a business activity.”

Benjamin further said the communities and stakeholders participating in the project can help others identify areas of interest within their own tourism activities.

“Other or similar rural communities can read how the communities in this study identify their touristic activities, both challenges and opportunities, and sites and can apply, adapt or engage in tourist activities for the well-being of their community and potential visitors,” Benjamin said.

Like Benjamin, Chen said she hopes the findings will be able to provide insight on tourism activities not only for Appalachia but for other rural areas.

“Everybody across the nation will be able to read our results,” Chen said. “And for that, I hope our research findings could serve as an example, and hopefully our findings ... can identify tourism needs and really help lots of rural counties not only in Appalachia but across the whole nation.”

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