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828K people visited Great Smoky Mountains in May

Despite no campgrounds, no visitor centers, and not opening until May 9, recreational visitation to the Smokies was fast and furious in the month of May.

GATLINBURG, Tenn — The newest statistics from the Great Smoky Mountains show just how much the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted visitation to the national park in 2020.   It also shows a surprisingly large number of tourists during the month of May, with more than 828,000 recreational visitors during an abbreviated month.

If you add up all the visitors from January through May, the National Park Service (NPS) visitation statistics show a 40 percent drop in total visitors in 2020 compared to the same point in 2019.  Total visitors through May in 2020 is 2.2 million.  The total for the same timeframe in 2019 was 3.8 million visitors.

That 40 percent drop is not surprising considering the park was closed from March 24 through May 8.

Even before the pandemic, there was a chance year-to-year comparisons with 2019 would be lower in 2020. The national park set an all-time record for visitors in 2019, shattering the previous annual record by 1.1 million visitors.

Credit: WBIR
Graph showing cumulative visitation from January through May of 2020, 2019, and a five-year average from 2015-2019.

Because 2019 was a record-setting year and could be an outlier, WBIR 10News calculated the five-year average for monthly visitation using the statistics for 2015 through 2019.

The five-year average attendance through May is 3.3 million visitors.  That's still a drastic difference compared to 2.2 million in 2020. But it is a 31 percent decrease instead of a 40 percent decrease in total visitation.

The surprising number is how many people visited the park in May 2020.

Even with the park closed through May 8, in the remaining 23 days there were 828,792 recreational visitors.

The five-year average visitation for the month of May from 2015-2019 was 1,005,005.

Credit: WBIR
Cars parked near the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains, where the message sign warns drivers to expect delays

Despite the park being closed more than 26 percent of May, visitation only dropped 17 percent compared to the previous five-year average. 

The GSMNP did not have any campgrounds open during May. Visitor centers also remained closed throughout the month. Yet, the park still attracted more than 36,000 visitors per day when it was open in May.

The stats for June will provide the first chance to compare a full month of visitation during the COVID-19 pandemic to previous years.  If June is anything like the last few weeks of May, the new normal is downright normal for the most-visited national park in the country.

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