Black Mountain tourism increases despite the pandemic. Do benefits outweigh drawbacks?

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Many visitors come to Black Mountain for the outdoor scenery, local businesses and the small town feel.

Tourism creates benefits, from boosting the economy to providing patronage of local businesses and encouraging people to visit Black Mountain. But excessive visitation can have drawbacks, too, making tourism a topic of debate. 

As of June, the tourism numbers recorded by the Chamber of Commerce were over 200% higher than in 2019 and 2020. 

"Because of the pandemic, people were visiting smaller towns with lower density rather than urban areas with high density," said Sharon Tabor, the executive director of the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce. "They felt safer."

According to Tabor, most of Western North Carolina saw record room tax collections for rentals. She said that while room occupancy for cabins jumped up to around 80%, hotels dropped between 20% and 50% in Asheville and the surrounding areas. 

"After the initial portion of the pandemic, it felt like even more tourism than we normally had," said Jen Billstrom, the proprietor of Velo Girl Rides. 

Billstrom has done research into the impact of tourism, particularly how bike tourism increases visitation to rural communities. 

"We're going through pretty painful growing pains, in my opinion, where we've reached this state where we have so much tourism, it's hard to feel like it's our town," Billstrom said. 

However, since so many locals find employment through tourism, seeing the positives and negatives in the industry becomes more complex than simply good or bad, according to Billstrom. 

"It's not a black or white issue," Billstrom said. "So many of our neighbors make their living through tourism. That's why Western North Carolina is what it is."

Tabor said 19 new businesses opened in Black Mountain, seven expanded and at least two or three plan to open this year.

"Black Mountain has always been a tourist destination," said LeAnne Johnson, director

of the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center. 

Johnson said that as the town established itself, people stopped on their way through, laying the foundation for the tourist town it is today. From an escape from the heat for North Carolinians in the flat lands to a tuberculosis recovery center, people have flocked to the area since the town was established. 

"People come here now, of course, for the mountains, the scenic hiking and just for the small town feel," Johnson said. "We also have a strong arts culture here."

Increased tourism helps keep the community thriving but also presents less apparent drawbacks. 

According to Johnson, many locals don't appreciate the impermanence of the visitors. Especially during a time when finding housing can be a challenge, the fact that many available living spaces serve as short-term rentals such as Airbnbs doesn't make things any easier. 

Airbnb lists more than 300 places to stay in Black Mountain. Reviews are overwhelmingly positive for the more than 14,000 guests who have stayed in the area. 

Due to Black Mountain's proximity to the outdoors, many people visit to enjoy the mountains. That can lead to overuse of trails and popular destinations, sometimes requiring additional maintenance. Tabor cited the example of Max Patch, a favored camping area in Madison County that issued a two-year camping ban in an effort to reduce the impact on natural resources. 

"People started experiencing outdoor tourism and to degrees they would not have done before, just to get outside and feel safe," Tabor said. 

Billstrom said she heard local businesses in town experienced banner years. However, the balance between allowing tourism within the town while slowing the flow remains a concern for locals.

"Striking a balance between too much and not enough will be challenging," Billstrom said.