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After the Smoke Clears: Tourism booming five years after Sevier Co. wildfires

Millions of people have visited Gatlinburg since the 2016 flames, city leaders said. Attractions are recording record numbers of tourists.

GATLINBURG, Tenn — At a glance, visitors might miss the scars left behind by the 2016 Sevier County wildfires. New growth and rebuilt structures fill many of the areas that were affected.

"A lot of people come here and they don't understand or realize what happened," said Marcus Watson, marketing director for the SkyLift Park. "The fires burned down our attraction."

It took them six months to rebuild the iconic chairlift portion of the SkyLift Park, which originally opened in 1954. Then came the SkyCenter, then the SkyBridge, then the SkyTrail and Tulip Tower.

"We knew that if we stayed strong and worked together as a team, that things were going to ultimately be be for the better," Watson said. "We went through some hard times and persevered ... we're seeing record numbers."

As SkyLift Park continues to expand, so does its push for education. Signs along the SkyTrail and Tulip Tower explain the history of the park and the fires.

"We don't want to live in the past, but we want to show people that Gatlinburg is bigger and better than ever from a tourism perspective," Watson said. "Each level [of Tulip Tower] talks about recovery and then what we've turned into and looking ahead."

Credit: WBIR
A sign along the SkyTrail explains what happened during the 2016 wildfire.

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Marci Claude, the public relations manager for the Gatlinburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that spirit of resilience is what Mayor Mike Werner meant went he said they would be "mountain strong."

"While we will never forget those who lost so much that day, we are — in honor of them — being resilient and making that strong comeback," Claude said. "We're determined to have that happen."

She said they've received numerous recognitions in the past five years, such as "Best Mountain Town to Visit in the U.S." by the U.S. News and World Report. Those titles mean even more to Claude knowing what her town has been through.

"I don't think that there is a day that goes by that we don't think about that event," she said. "It was a historic and tragic wildfire that claimed the lives of 14 people and really traumatized our entire community."

Since then, she said they've seen millions of people come through Gatlinburg — even more than they had hoped for in 2016.

"If we'd had a crystal ball, I don't think we could have predicted this," she said. "It was astonishing the support that we got at that time. People love Gatlinburg, we have faithful visitors and they really responded in ways we never dreamed."