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September 27, 2019

River Tourism Dollars Awaits the Region

BY Tony Treadway

The International Rafting Federation did something unexpected back in June 2019. In announcing its Top 10 Rivers, it picked my hometown’s Nolichucky. Only three of the ten rivers named were in the U.S. So why aren’t bigger crowds of rafting enthusiasts flocking to Erwin, TN? Because we’re just getting started on raising awareness of this great river that is now has the status of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon and the Salmon River in Idaho. Rafters and natives affectionally call it the “Noli”.

“The benefit of properly marketing the Nolichucky is only one piece of a greatly expanded marketing effort for the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region around tourism.”

The river’s 115 miles of glory is fed by two of the highest peaks in the Central Appalachians, Mount Mitchell in NC and Roan Mountain in TN. The confluence of the North Toe and Cane Rivers, the Nolichucky’s most notable whitewater feature is a gorge between western North Carolina and east Tennessee in Unicoi County near Erwin. It completes its journey near Morristown and Douglas Lake.

“How do you double the economic impact for the county and the region from these extraordinary assets?”

The primary facility serving rafters, Nolichucky Gorge Campground, is literally a stone’s throw from the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT runs from Springer Mountain GA to Mount Katahdin in ME. Purported to be the longest hiking-only trail in the world, the AT’s 2,200 miles hosts an estimated two million hikers a year. According to Equinox, economic benefits from the AT in Unicoi County accounts for only $243,000.

According to a study by Asheville, NC-based Equinox Environmental, rafting on the Nolichucky currently generates $2.4 million in annual tourist expenditures in the county. Fishing along the river and streams account for another $1.5 million. Both rafting and fishing are just behind the $3.2 million generated each year in Unicoi County by hunting. Thus, $7.1 million in tourism-related expenditures are already benefiting a county of just 18,000 people.  Yet, there is more to be tapped beyond the trinity of rafting, fishing and hunting.

Estimated Economic Impact of Recreation In Unicoi County, TN,
* Equinox Environmental

So how do you double the economic impact for the county and the region from these extraordinary assets? You develop a four-point plan that incorporates the following:

  1. Further Develop Assets to Attract Visitors – With a campground and a couple hotels in the county, there are opportunities to develop amenities that can accommodate more overnight stays by rafters, hikers and fishermen that will encourage longer stays. 
  2. Elevate the Status of Fishing & Hunting – Too little is left to word-of-mouth on both bass and trout fishing along the Nolichucky and the mountain stream fly fishing at the new Rocky Fork State Park. Likewise bear and deer hunting assets could be elevated through a lodge environment in either Unicoi, Limestone Cove or Flag Pond.
  3. Recruit Entrepreneurs Around Recreation – New tax incentives tied to opportunity zones for creating new businesses in areas in need of development ae available. These incentives coupled with a marketing and nurturing effort can recruit entrepreneurs from the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee.
  4. Develop an Integrated Marketing Plan – The Equinox report finds that half of the rafters participating in an excursion had no prior knowledge of Unicoi County before their trip and that a quarter of the rafters have incomes of more than $70,000 per year. Marketing focused in metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Knoxville and Miami (significant numbers of south Florida residents summer in the Banner Elk, Boone and Blowing Rock areas and could be coaxed to Unicoi County for at least a day). Geo and behavioral targeting can have a significant impact for the county.     

Beyond the four-legged platform for economic growth, Unicoi County has the opportunity to attract tourism-related industries, such as backpack, kayak, clothing and camping/fishing gear manufactures.

The benefit of properly marketing the Nolichucky is only one piece of a greatly expanded marketing effort for the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region around tourism. Properly vetted, cataloged and marketed, tourism will be the greatest selling tool for the Appalachian Highlands.

Creative Energy has significant and powerful insights into building cult brands in tourism. If you would like to discuss opportunities for your own vision, let’s talk.    

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