Tourists brave the slippery rocks to take in the High Falls at Dupont Forest // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Like a lot of transplants, I was a tourist before moving here.

My wife and I moved here in 1995 for my job with the newspaper, but that came after a visit as tourists two years before. We took in the Biltmore, went to Chimney Rock, and visited Asheville’s downtown.

Honestly, we were not exactly blown away by Asheville proper back then, as the downtown was still largely a vacant mess, and the outskirts resembled suburban sprawl that could’ve been Anywhere, USA. That still holds true about much of the ‘burbs, but the downtown has seen an amazing rebirth, along with the South Slope, West Asheville, and other parts of town.

Asheville, as we all know, is now inundated with tourists — some 12.5 million a year, according to the latest count. Yeah, that’s a lot.

Some say too many. I’ve had this discussion with a lot of folks, including the head of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority.

Coming Tuesday: Promotion of the area to tourists contributes to escalating housing costs.

My point then and now is this: I think we could agree that at some point, we’ve got too many tourists.

Let’s say we draw 100 million visitors a year. I think everyone would agree that’s too many. OK, some hoteliers would probably see no problem with that and hire some of the Chinese  construction crews that slapped up a hospital in a week during COVID to fast track some new hotels around here.

Tourism in Buncombe has steadily grown with a dip in 2020 coinciding with the pandemic. // Credit: Watchdog graphic with data from Longwoods International and Tourism Economics for Buncombe TDA

I’d wager that even 20 million tourists would be too much for most of us, if 12.5 million hasn’t already tripped your “over the limit!” sensor. The point is, somewhere along the line, most people will think, “Man, we’ve got way too much humanity milling around downtown, clogging up the local roads, slugging down beers, and staring at each other.”

Meanwhile, we keep building more hotels to accommodate more guests, which then generates more occupancy tax revenues, which fuels the TDA’s marketing efforts to bring in ever-more visitors, which in turn creates more demand for more hotel rooms, which…well, you get the point. This perpetual motion machine never stops.

And all those tourists have impacts on our lovely mountain oasis here — both good and bad. We certainly would not have dozens of fantastic restaurants and breweries based solely on our residential population here. Or all the wonderful art galleries and music venues many of us enjoy.

Tourism is a double-edged sword — always has been and always will be. We benefit, and we pay a price.

Yes, tourism has a lot of local impacts

More and more tourists undoubtedly clog up our local roads, require more policing and contribute to the need for expansions, including the delightful never-ending widening of I-26. They use water, flush toilets, create garbage and recycling while here, and some even like it so much here they buy homes, helping to drive up prices. (Look for my story Tuesday about the latter in the third installment of our series Selling Asheville, which examines the city’s tourism machine.)

And a lot of them use Asheville Regional Airport, which is undergoing a gigantic expansion.

Ah, the airport. Have you experienced that joy of late?

A sign of the times at Asheville Regional Airport // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

When I went to interview the director recently, I could not find a parking spot anywhere but the cell phone lot. I rolled the dice and didn’t get towed.

In five years, the airport has added 16 markets, 1,400 daily plane seats and nine daily flights to  33 destinations, compared with 17 five years ago, according to stats from its marketing department. The airport saw a 43 percent increase in passenger traffic from 2018 to 2019, exceeding one million passengers. Through late summer 2023, passenger traffic was up about 25 percent and on track to surpass 2 million by year’s end.

“I’ve been here 15 years, and when I first got here, we were pretty much a 50 percent leisure/ 50 percent business market,” Executive Director Lew Bleiweis told me. “We have grown now so our leisure market is roughly 75 percent and business 25 percent.”

The airport does not track “tourists” per se, instead monitoring “business” versus “leisure” travel. The latter includes vacationers and tourists, people visiting family and friends, second homeowners spending time here, and those who mix business and leisure.

Asheville Regional Airport is undergoing a $410 million expansion. The airport took 58 years to reach one million passengers, and it will have taken just four more to double that. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

The airport took 58 years to reach one million passengers, and it will have taken just four more to double that.

The airport, which opened in 1961 and has undergone several major renovations, is in the midst of a $410 million expansion, which will include a new terminal, gates, and an FAA tower. Supported by federal and state grants, airport revenue bonds, and airport operating revenue, the project should be completed in late 2026 or early 2027.

“The new terminal is really being planned for 4 million passengers,” Bleiweis said.

Tourism’s impact on policing

Asheville Police Department Chief David Zack and Deputy Chief Michael Lamb said it’s difficult to separate out tourists from other residents or visitors to the area as far as crime statistics, but more people equals more incidents and calls.

“With tourism, the extra people that come into town, it does require that we have the APD staffing to be able to handle the extra calls that are typically within the central business district (downtown) and within areas of restaurants and breweries,” Lamb said, noting that calls increase during warmer months and into September and October.

Traffic accidents show a slight increase during October, and during special events. 

Zack said the correlation is often made that APD has more officers than most other departments in the region, and, “That’s because you have 12.5 million visitors a year.”

On the trash and recycling front, Buncombe County Solid Waste Director Dane Pedersen told my colleague Andrew Jones, “Intuitively, when people come here, when they’re doing their thing — tourism, vacationing, whatever — waste is being created, obviously, and we know that has an impact here locally.”

During the heavy tourism months, waste tonnage increases, Pedersen said. In 2022, for example, solid waste dealt with about 20,000 tons in July compared to February that year when 16,100 tons were processed.

“A lot of things factor into that, but I think tourism is a big driver,” Pedersen told Jones.

Tourists use a lot of water and create their share of sewage, and we checked in with those departments, Asheville Water Resources, and the Buncombe County Metropolitan Sewerage District. Both said they have plenty of capacity to handle tourists, as well as other growth.

Jones also checked in on another subject near and dear to many of us: trails and hiking. 

My wife and I hike most weekends, and a couple of years ago we noticed DuPont State Park on the Henderson/Transylvania line had become an absolute madhouse, with people parking all along the roadways, and trails looking more like New York City sidewalks than woodland paths. The park has made a lot of changes, including restricting roadside parking, and that’s helped considerably.

But during the peak seasons, you’re likely to have company on local trails in DuPont, Pisgah National Forest, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Jones checked in with Carolina Mountain Club, whose volunteers care for 440 miles of trails, and they’re acutely aware of the rise in visitors and what more foot traffic does to forest byways.

“I would say that over my 10 years with this club, the number of visitors, the number of users of our trails has definitely increased at a steady rate,” club president Tom Weaver said, adding tourism has definitely played a role. “That is causing us to need to increase the number of hours we spend out there maintaining these trails to a condition that our agency partners, the Forest Service and the Park Service, expect us to.”

The Carolina Mountain Club, whose volunteers care for 440 miles of trails, and it’s acutely aware of the rise in visitors and what more foot traffic does to forest byways. // Photo provided by Carolina Mountain Club

Western North Carolina is also home to the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, and they’re heavily used by locals and tourists alike. Jones found that in 2018 the service estimated 5.1 million people visited the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, among the most visited national forests in the nation.

Of these, 39.8 percent were locals who traveled 0-25 miles, and 9.7 percent traveled 26-50 miles. Of the remaining 50.5 percent of visitors, 8.8 percent traveled 51-100 miles, 11.2 percent traveled 101-200 miles, 16.2 percent traveled 201-500 miles, and 14.4 percent traveled over 500 miles to visit the forests. 

More recreation means more operational and maintenance needs, according to Kimberly DeVall, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service in North Carolina.

“The high levels of use on our aging infrastructure does present challenges, as many of our popular facilities are over 50 years old and have considerable deferred maintenance,” DeVall said.

On any given week, the Carolina Mountain Club has 100-150 people working on trails. Even though the club has a steady income, it could use more to help with tools and safety gear for its volunteers.

“It doesn’t seem fair that the (tourism occupancy) tax goes to advertising for even more tourism when we have underfunded resources, underfunded impacts, because of that increase in tourism,” Weaver said, adding recent population increases also contribute to higher visitor counts.

We don’t grow without newcomers

The 2022 population of Buncombe was 273,589, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Over the last five years, we’ve added about 2,000 net new residents per year, an average annual rate of .8 percent, according to Tom Tveidt, founder of Syneva Economics here in western North Carolina.

Over the last 10 years, Buncombe’s population growth rate has steadily slowed — in the early 2010s, it averaged 1.1 percent annually, or about 2,700 net new residents per year.

“Basically, each year the number of deaths in Buncombe outnumber the number of births, so the ‘natural growth’ is negative,” Tveidt said.

For example, between 2021 and 2022, Buncombe had 3,290 deaths and 2,455 births, meaning natural growth was actually negative 835.

“This loss is made up by in-migration, people moving from other places in the nation and outside the U.S.,” Tveidt said. “Between 2021 and 2022, there was a net increase of 2,235 people moving from within the U.S., and another net 453 from outside the U.S. So, a total attraction of 2,688 new residents.”

Those new in-migrating folks outnumbered the natural decline by 1,870, accounting for Buncombe’s total population change for the year. This pattern has held steady for decades, Tveidt said.

“A simpler way of saying this is if you put a fence around Buncombe, the population would steadily decline,” Tveidt said. “Our net population growth is totally dependent on people moving in.”

Having worked in a city in Virginia that was in steep decline, I can tell you that’s not good. You want to live in an area that’s growing.

So again, we’ve got the double-edged sword. As I report in tomorrow’s Selling Asheville installment, a lot of tourists, like I once was, end up moving here and buying homes, and that contributes to home prices rising.

On one edge, that’s great for real estate agents and home sellers, but on the flip side it makes it really tough for locals to buy here, especially in Buncombe County. 

I had a conversation last week with someone asking very fair questions about our tourism series: What’s the point of it all? Just more TDA bashing?

No, that’s not it at all. State legislation mandates that the TDA spend two-thirds of its budget promoting the Asheville area for tourism. The point is to lay out what the organization takes in, what it’s spending and how it’s spending it, and putting that in context of other similar organizations and our needs here in the area.

I’m certainly not anti-tourism. A lot of livelihoods depend on it, and the TDA has contributed tens of millions to a wide range of organizations and entities we all enjoy, from theaters and ballfields to greenways and ziplines.

A tweak to the law last year made sense, as it changed the distribution model from a 75/25 split to the two-thirds/one-third model, with the majority going to advertising and promotion and the rest toward tourism projects and the new Legacy Investment from Tourism fund. The LIFT fund allows a little more wiggle room in capital projects the TDA can fund, and that’s good for everyone.

But a lot of locals still feel more of this occupancy tax windfall, which comes from a 6 percent tax on lodgings and dates to1983, should go to other uses, ranging from affordable housing and road enhancements to paying for more cops or adding cleanup crews downtown. As the law is written now, it can’t.

So a discussion is what we’re after, and that’s always healthy for a community. Asheville has changed a lot since 1983. It has a whole lot more to offer, and a lot more people have heard of the city.

A re-evaluation of priorities may be in order. That’s all.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at To show your support for this vital public service go to

24 replies on “Opinion: If you’ve lived here long enough, you’ve seen tourism’s impacts — the good, bad, and ugly”

  1. John – thanks for the article. Bottom line seems to be that we as locals need the TDA to show us more love. This past weekends weather was just one of many reasons people desire to come here, spend time or move here – what would be great would be a better split of the way the tourist tax is spent. The TDA should love the locals and the infrastructure as much as they love the tourists and their money.

  2. Yes, this is the conversation we’ve been pleading to have the past several years. The current exponential/accelerated growth is not sustainable into infinity with finite resources and the carrying capacity of our city. Not having this conversation and not recalibrating our trajectory might one day burst the Tourism Bubble, and then where would we be?

  3. How about a more balanced economy? If we are such a desirable place to live, why can’t we recruit business that is clean and pays a living wage? We should be using more of the room tax to promote those kinds of businesses and improve our infrastructure such as the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, the water system, the police force, the parking garages, etc., etc?

    1. The TDA and EDC are already working on this approach to use tourism and conferences specifically to help diversify the economy:
      ICYMI – Explore Asheville and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce are partnering on an innovative economic development strategy – attracting thought leaders, membership associations and industry meetings to Asheville that align with goals of the Economic Development Coalition. The effort recognizes the strength of our hospitality economy as the front porch of the region, welcoming and catalyzing growth in other vital sectors of the WNC economy from Advanced Manufacturing and Outdoor Products, to Climate Services, Technology and more.

      And since TDA just invested nearly $23 million in McCormick Field that is owned by the City, my guess is the TDA will be receptive to a Thomas Wolfe application from the City. Personally, I’d like to see the city to maintain the facilities they are responsible for – proactively!
      Occupancy tax legally cannot be used for operational expenses like police force. It’s baffling we as residents expect visitors to pay for services when we as local tax payers already pay a pretty penny for basic public services.
      And visitor-based businesses pay for their water services by volume just like any other business in Asheville and Buncombe County.

  4. Good article — and it all sounds very familiar, since my wife and I lived in the Charleston, SC area for nearly 40 years before moving to Asheville. There, hotel construction has run amok downtown, but people keep piling in from “off” to fill those rooms, with others flocking to the region to live. I see the Asheville region as being about 25-30 years behind the Charleston area, which has evolved to offer many more higher-paying jobs in technology and manufacturing than 20 or more years ago. On balance, I think the growth will pay off for Asheville, but only if we work hard to meet the inevitable challenges around housing, infrastructure, and economic development. It’s doable, but only with strong leadership in our community.

  5. Growth is tough and Asheville was bound to get discovered. All the pretty places in the US exploded with sky rocketing real estate prices as people with $$$ were able to work from anywhere and move. Our tourism industry has advertised us globally for so many years. It is time to pivot and focus on “workforce” housing near the city. Thanks AVL WD for another good article.

  6. Maybe only the Chamber of Commerce can encourage the types of businesses Asheville needs. It would be excellent to put some growth into that idea, rather than all emphasis on more and more hotels. Yes, the spiral need so be curbed.

  7. The TDA has money to grant organizations like the Carolina Mountain Club mentioned in this article, but only responds to requests. Maybe someone or a local organization could find suitable local organizations that need funds and get them to apply to the TDA for support since the TDA says it does not do this kind of search.

  8. As a resident of Asheville these last 5 years, I really appreciate tourists. They flood in Thursday night or Friday and depart on Sunday at 11 a.m. or so. They leave behind their money which funds any number of excellent restaurants, galleries and other stores we then visit from Sunday through Thursday. I’m happy to cede them a couple of weekend days in return for their financial support of businesses important to me.

  9. I would like to see the distribution of the room tax for tourism be changed to 30% for infrastructure maintenance/improvement, 55% for tourism development and 15% for attracting business that can pay living wages to locals. I would put a freeze on tourism development pay on any salaries higher than $250,00/year and make raises available to those who earn less, especially for any folks who are paid less than $50,000/year. The tourism managers have done a great job and now I think it’s time to cool the jets a bit.

  10. Great read, as always, John. So glad we have The Watchdog.
    There is no question that the TDA has done an Excellent job in attracting tourism.
    But, it seems time to slow down the overmarketing, and find a way to devote more of their funding to other community needs. Absolutely love your excellent ending: ” So a discussion is what we’re after and that’s always healthy for a community. A reevaluation of priorities may be in order. That’s all.” Yes !

  11. I think there are enough tourists already. Downtown is a place to avoid except on Monday or Tuesday mornings. Regardless of that question however, I think it is unconscionable that more of the tourist tax money can’t be used for police and other local functions that tourism impacts negatively.

  12. I came to Asheville 14 years ago to live, never before that as a tourist. What attracted me were outdoor activities (supported by tourists), good restaurants (supported by tourists), a vibrant downtown (supported by tourists), a great music scene (supported by tourists), arts, crafts and theater (supported by tourists) and, above all, warm and friendly people who were open and helpful to me when I was a stranger. It is my hope that we remain friendly, sharing and welcoming to strangers and not become an insular community of IGMFUs.

  13. I believe Watchdog recently publicized that John was away on vacation. Wonder if he apologized to every resident that lives in Northern Colorado while he was enjoying their trails, scenery and wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park. This goes both ways you know.

  14. Great article and very informative. But for feelings wouldn’t be hurt at all if the tourists choose someplace else to go. I am for growth,but all the growth is taking away our beautiful mountains and rural areas. Before you know it, there will not be any trees or dirt anywhere. Asheville seems to be more and more hotels and apartments.

  15. NC Occupancy Tax 101
    1. Beginning with the adoption of the general occupancy tax administrative provisions in 1997, local bills authorizing these taxes have (almost always) required the creation of tourism development authorities (“TDAs”) for the taxing units. The local TDA, rather than the local governing board, is charged with deciding how to spend occupancy tax revenue to benefit tourism in the area. Similar requirements have been applied in recent years to local governments that received their initial authority for occupancy taxes prior to 1997 and later sought to raise their maximum tax rates.
    2. These guidelines now direct any new occupancy tax legislation be written to mandate that at least 2/3 of occupancy tax revenue must be invested in destination promotion, and no more than 1/3 of the same tax revenue in “tourism-related” expenditures.
    3. The changes to Buncombe County’s occupancy tax usage and legislation made possible by local hotel leaders and Chuck Edwards, Julie Mayfield and Warren Daniel is now in line with the above.
    4. Of the 21 occupancy tax bills that moved in the last legislative session, all were amended to conform to the occupancy tax guidelines.
    5. To think that the NC legislature would say all of a sudden say “golly gee” a website wrote some slanted articles so let’s go outside the guidelines is simply naive.
    6. It’s interesting that a Buncombe County resident is an expert at NC occupancy tax usage and this outlet has not interviewed him as part of this “investigative series.”
    If Watchdog was really after a discussion, seems like their coverage of this important issue for our community would have been more fair and balanced like their downtown series, instead of using incendiary tactics.

  16. Based on my experience flying out of Avl Airport on Oct. 26 and returning Oct. 29, the Airport has already outgrown its capacity and if the growth rate continues it will still be inadequate when the current expansion is completed in 3.5 years. When I returned on Sunday night, Oct. 29, the line of people waiting to go through security went way beyond what used to be its usual ending point and was so long I never saw the end of it.

  17. More of the usual boosterism clothed as ‘growth is good’ that as usual is 30 years late. These “conversations” are meaningless as most of the locals are not listened to and haven’t been heard all along, just the business side that wants to make money, not quality of life.

  18. It is troubling that folks find tourists such a detriment to the community. Tourists are a vital part of the lifeblood of our community and we shouldn’t discourage their coming and spending money to sustain local businesses.

    Tax policy (national state and local) is a matter of much interest and defining how to allocate the costs of government equitably across the beneficiaries of service can yield very interesting conversation. There are a multitude of tax options if leadership has the political fortitude to discuss.

    It’s disappointing Watchdog’s approach to this issue has divided the discussion into “us” versus “them.” Not a good way to build sustainable community or “discussion.”

    We were all originally “visitors” unless you are Cherokee. I think we forget that. I also think we fail to acknowledge the cost of “community” and are selfish in who we think should pay for it.

  19. This is challenge many places are facing. You drank the tourist dollar kool-aid. The only real way to control the number of tourists is to limit the available beds. Of course this will increase the hotel and short term rental rates. That balance of number of tourists and local quality of life needs to be figured out. In our Florida county the tourist board gets 60% for marketing and 40% is invested into the community. And we have too many tourists but keep building more hotels and too many STRs making homes unaffordable. Asheville isn’t too far out whack relative to our tourist board. But now that the area may be getting too many tourists the marketing budget should be decreased to see if the number of tourists can be balanced.

  20. I lived in Asheville in the 80s, when an ordinary working person could afford an apartment in an old house in Montford. There were 2 groups then as now. One group of people complained about the tourists cluttering up the roads, even at 8s numbers of tourists. The other group claimed we needed to promote tourism at all costs to bring money in.

    As a native of a non-tourist town in a heavily touristed state, I tried to tell both groups that the ideal is somewhere in between. Tourists bring in money and some improvements, but tourism also comes with the problems Boyle mentions as well as being one of the first things to go when an economic downturn happens. No one wanted to believe a happy medium was the spot to aim for and it seems to still be much that way.

    We saw during the pandemic how a tourist-centered economy suffers when people aren’t traveling. I can tell you, as a native of north Florida, that when the nation’s economy drops off, tourism does as well. What will happen to all these restaurants, breweries, and hotels when the US has another major recession? It will happen, though no one can say when. The endless approval of more hotels in Asheville and Buncombe County will mean lots of ugly, vacant buildings one day. Meanwhile, the views I knew from downtown Asheville in the 80s are cluttered up with those ugly hotels. I vote for holding at the current levels.

    Then again, we moved back to this are after living in a town of ~5000 and a village of 600 in northern MIchigan, so I rather appreciate natural beauty without tourist hordes.

  21. Asheville needs to work on attracting companies that offer strong middle class wages. Kids that grow up here and go to college do not return because there is a small professional job market. They have to move to Charlotte, Atlanta etc.

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