As leaders in tony Highlands, North Carolina, look around the southern Appalachians, they find examples aplenty of tourist destinations that have struggled to define an image to match their beautiful surroundings. As the Smoky Mountain News reported yesterday, several towns in western North Carolina have labored to find slogans to brand themselves to appeal to a wide range of potential visitors without becoming so imprecise as to lose a coherent message. Some have had to rebrand themselves as their offerings have evolved. In Cherokee on the eastern fringe of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, casino gambling as eclipsed even the town’s cultivated reputation as a place to encounter Native Americans.
Highlands’ slogan “Above It All” refers to its especially lofty elevation of 4,118 feet above sea level (among the highest towns east of the Rocky Mountains) but also suggests the refined pleasures – sampling the antique shops, fine restaurants, theater performances, art galleries, seeing the many nearby waterfalls, and skiing at Sapphire Valley – associated with the town and its neighbor, Cashiers, which serve as a popular weekend getaway for well-heeled Atlantans. As the above article noted, Highlands’ brand is sufficiently stable that it is under less pressure for incessant rebranding.
There is a danger in building visitor interest too quickly. Many of America’s most iconic and successful destinations have struggled to control their image as their popularity outstripped their capacity. Niagara Falls is the classic example of a place where the main attraction became overwhelmed by hordes of tourists even in the 19th century. More recently, rampant growth on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, has taxed the resort community’s carefully cultivated image as a harmonious blend of resort development and natural environment. Likewise, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge (“The Center of Fun in the Smokies”), Tennessee, have attracted massive numbers of tourists. Snarled traffic and roadside sprawl on U.S. 441 are as much a part of the experience as quaint craft shops.
Like the mass destinations on U.S. 441 on both flanks of the Smoky Mountains, Highlands has an established brand. Unlike them, it has a greatly limited capacity. In its blend of high culture and high-country recreation, it is almost a miniature Aspen. Of course, thanks to its many ski slopes, Aspen’s summer tourism takes a backseat to its winter season, while Highlands’ summer tourism trumps its wintertime offerings. Aspen offers a lesson for Highlands: to guard its quaint, small-town atmosphere. Aspen visionary Walter Paepcke, as American Tourism contributor E. Duke Richey observes, cultivated the Rockies town’s artistic, musical, literary and culinary vibe almost as much as he did its world-class skiing but, like most tourist destinations, the city’s struggle to avoid losing its small-town atmosphere to overdevelopment is perennial.