The online home of The Group Travel Leader, America's leading publication for the group travel industry. Articles on hot destinations, attractions, news and travel trends from across the country and around the world.
Issue link: http://digital.grouptravelleader.com/i/768078
T H E GROUP G R R O U P TRAVEL LE ADER T H E arly in the morning on November 29, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I saw a video taken from inside someone's car as they drove through what looked like an inferno. There were smoke and f lames on all sides, and balls of fire were streaking through the air in front of them. I didn't have the sound turned on, and I was still a bit sleepy, so I didn't understand at first what I was seeing. But over the next few hours, it became clear: The Great Smoky Mountains were on fire, threatening lives and prop- erty in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. It's always heartbreaking to hear about natural disasters, but this one hit especially close to home. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are among the most popular visitor destinations in Tennessee, and tourism makes up the vast majority of the local economy. And it's an easy trip to the Smokies from my home in Lexington, Kentucky, which means that I have visited for short getaways and long weekends many times. These destinations are widely beloved for their natu- ral beauty, live shows, exciting attractions, arts and crafts, and variety of shopping experiences. It's difficult to overestimate how important the Smokies are as a vacation destination for people in my area. My cousin and his family visit there up to six times a year. All told, 14 people died and almost 18,000 acres burned. Fire consumed dozens of homes and cabins in the area, as well as several hotels and attractions. (For more on the status of popular attractions, as well as the area's recovery efforts, see our story "Wildfire in the Smokies: What You Can Do" on page 10.) This wildfire and its aftermath have been heartbreaking, no doubt. But it's not hopeless. I have mountains of hope for the Smokies because I know the people there. They are strong people who have built strong communities. They work together. They take care of each other. And they have thousands of fans around the country who are already rallying around them. To honor the spirit of the people and the beauty of their natural surroundings, we decided to put a picture from the Smoky Mountains on this issue's cover. I love this image because it speaks to renewal and hope, both of which will be themes of the Smoky Mountain communities in 2017. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are going to come back, probably better than ever. Tourism people are a spirited bunch; it's hard to get them down and impossible to knock them out. When you think about everything that the tourism commu- nity in the United States has overcome, it's amazing how resilient we are. We routinely brush off natural disasters, terrorist attacks and negative publicity. We endured the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression and came out on the other side. In cities across the country, tourism is booming now more than ever. Last year brought its share of challenges, not the least of which was a bitter and contentious presidential election. There will be more challenges to come in 2017, including some we don't even know about yet. But what I do know is that like the Smoky Mountains, tourism will always bounce back. We're in the business of creating memories and helping people's dreams come true. No matter what happens in the world, there will always be a place for that. B Y B R I A N J E W E L L EDITOR'S T H E V ark ABOVE: A TOUR GROUP BRINGS HELPFUL ITEMS TO RESIDENTS OF THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS AFTER THE DECEMBER WILDFIRES.