- Creating the Land of the Sky: Tourism and Society in Western North Carolina
Each year about twenty million motorists drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the scenic mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. The largest city along the Parkway, Asheville, North Carolina, is the center of a tourist region which promotes itself as "The Land of the Sky." As Parkway travelers approach Asheville they come across a beautifully designed modern building made from local timber and rock called the Folk Art Center. Inside they are introduced to mountain culture—or at least to the official version of mountain culture that the coalition of government agencies and local businesses who established the Center want these potential customers to see. Visitors can watch demonstrations by mountain musicians and artisans, buy high-quality Appalachian crafts, and peruse a museum of the finest examples of contemporary mountain artwork. But these tourists encounter a very different portrait of mountain life after they leave the Parkway. A variety of businesses, large and small, try to extract their dollars by selling stereotypical items such as "Hillbilly" joke books, corncob pipes, and little brown moonshine jugs, all designed to play on the outsiders' preconceived notions of Appalachia. Tourism in the North Carolina mountains is contested terrain, both culturally and economically. According to Richard Starnes's new book it always has been.
Although tourism is now the world's largest industry, creating an estimated \$3.6 trillion of economic activity annually (according to the World Travel and Tourism Council), historians of the United States have been slow to study its development. Anthropologists, economists, and sociologists have taken the lead in exploring tourism's growing impact on the natural and human environment. Starnes, an Assistant Professor of History at Western Carolina University, is part of a new wave of historians who borrow heavily from these disciplines to analyze the importance of tourism at the local and regional level. Several years ago he edited Southern Journeys: Tourism, History, and Culture in the Modern South (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003). Now he presents his own case study of tourism in and around Asheville from 1800 to the late twentieth century.
According to Starnes tourism began in western North Carolina during the early nineteenth century when low-country planters left their farms in the summer for the cooler breezes of the mountains. By the Civil War the Asheville area already had a reputation as a travel destination, but it lacked the infrastructure and unifying image essential for a successful tourist economy. After the war the mountains' healing springs and reputation for a healthy climate, combined with new railroad construction, brought increasing numbers of visitors. Soon "health tourism" gave way to the more profitable business of catering to the growing middle class of pleasure seekers who came to the mountains to experience the rugged beauty. The romantic appeal of Appalachian culture, which emerged in the American imagination around the turn of the century, also drew visitors to the area. By 1900 mountain leaders were committed to tourism as the basis of their economy much in the same way that other New South regional [End Page 222] elites built their communities on coal mining, tobacco farming, and textile manufacturing.
Even after the Great Depression brought the tourist industry crashing down in the 1930s, mountain entrepreneurs held fast to their vision of "The Land of the Sky." They convinced the federal government to invest millions of dollars in tourist-friendly projects such as the Great Smokey Mountain National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. While these massive government programs contributed to the region's post-war success, they also exasperated growing tensions within mountain society. The Great Smokey Mountain National Park brought prosperity to towns near its official Park Entrances but left other mountain communities isolated and burdened with new regulations restricting alternative economic activity. The Blue Ridge Parkway benefitted hotel owners but infuriated mountain farmers who were prevented from driving their commercial vehicles on the new road.
These conflicts were...