The Nantahala Gorge contributes $85 million to the local economy each year, and is the primary reason many tourists make their first visit to Western North Carolina, according to the results of an economic impact study conducted by Western Carolina University.
The report, completed in March, provides the first comprehensive look in more than a decade of the economic impact of the whitewater rafting industry. Gorge rafting outfitters hope the numbers will finally convince state tourism officials to spend more dollars promoting the rafting industry.
“We sometimes feel sort of like the redheaded stepchild,” said Ken Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures. “It’s a huge economic driver, and to some degree we’re not getting the support we need.”
Surveys distributed to more than a thousand Gorge visitors revealed the area is key in drawing tourists to the region. More than 60 percent of respondents revealed the Gorge is what brought them to WNC in the first place. The majority — 70 percent — came to the area to raft or kayak. Another 18 percent were in the Gorge to ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Sixty percent said they would “definitely” return to the region within the next year based on their experience.
According to the report, Gorge visitors earn an income far above the national median. A third of Gorge visitors earn more than $100,000 each year; and another third earn more than $65,000 in a year.
And visitors to the area are likely to flex their significant spending power. Adult visitors to the Gorge spend about $250 each in the region on lodging, food, shopping, attraction admissions, and transportation. They stay an average of five nights per trip at lodging facilities throughout the western counties.
Gorge businesses and employees also make a big impact on the region’s economy. Businesses shell out $5.7 million in local taxes each year, and Gorge employees spend nearly $2,000 each month at local establishments.
David Huskins, president of Smoky Mountain Host, hopes that the Gorge economic impact report is the first of several focusing on major tourist attractions along the U.S. 19 corridor, including heritage attractions on the Eastern Band of Cherokee reservation and the economic impact of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park.