Author: Caitlyn Marentette

smoky mountains hikers exploring the region

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, colloquially called the Smokies, is far more than protected national lands to locals and visitors. Before its establishment as a national park in 1934, the Smokies were home to hundreds of local farmers and paper manufacturers. The ethos of these self-sustaining locals prevailed long after the establishment of the park into the present day. For thousands of years before, Native Americans and thousands of native species were home to this beautiful park. Now, the park is known as one of the most ecologically rich landscapes in the United States. Today, locals share significant pride in calling the mountains their home. Millions of tourists come each year not only to experience the beauty of the mountains, but also to learn the local history, to engage seriously with nature, and to enjoy the culture of mountain locals.

The Smokies occupy a unique role as habitat, as nationally protected land, and as a cultural enclave for thousands. What makes visiting the Smokies stand out from other experiences, however, is the interplay between these roles. The below 7 are just a few of the reasons why the Great Smoky Mountains are so unforgettable to national park visitors.

Teeming wildlife and beautiful natural landscapes are abundant along the Alum Caves Bluff Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

1. Mountain Biodiversity

The Great Smoky Mountains is well-known for its rich biodiversity. Among the national parks in the United States, the Smokies boast the most recorded plant and animal species. As of 2021, over twenty thousand organisms have been found in the Smoky Mountains alone, and over one thousand of them are unique to the National Park territory. Scientists believe that this does not account for thousands more plant and animal species that remain undocumented in the mountains. This makes great opportunities for wildlife enthusiasts and travelers who wish to connect with the natural environment.

2. Historic Downtown Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg is a stunning town in this region
Downtown Gatlinburg is home to hundreds of store owners, distinct tourism destinations, and beautiful forested landscapes. Source: Shutterstock

Gatlinburg is known as the opening gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. Nestled amid the thick of the green forested landscape, Gatlinburg has a bustling tourist economy that serves its millions of visitors. The town of Gatlinburg hosts the historic home of the town’s first settler family and the popular Tennessee Heritage Trail, which both tell stories of the town’s early days. Another site of interest is the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, a famous arts school founded in partnership between the local Pi Beta Phi school and the University of Tennessee. Throughout downtown are a number of locally-owned shops and enterprises, each of which hold their own local legacies. Whatever your interest is, there are dozens of ways to immerse yourself in the ongoing history of downtown Gatlinburg.

3. Local Artisans

Local artists and craftsmen give the foothills of the Smoky Mountains a one-of-a-kind creative environment. Inspired by the local culture of southern Appalachia and the broader East Tennessee arts and crafts community, artisans of the Smokies have much to offer visitors. While in Gatlinburg, feel free to visit any number of local arts and crafts venues. The proceeds support local businesses, which enable them to continue to produce high-quality, one-of-a-kind products and services to tourists and locals alike. You can also rest assured that purchases from local artisans is a sustainable practice. Most goods are produced using local materials, meaning that goods and services around the Smokies are distinct in their making and planet-friendly to the core.

4. Experiences for All Ages

At the Smokies, there are a variety of events to keep people of all ages engaged. The Arrowmont School offers students of all ages the opportunity to participate in educational and entertaining art workshops and classes. Hiking trails vary in lengths for different skill levels and ages. People who wish to enjoy outdoor activities can find options for children, adults, and families. Couples can enjoy the magnificent sunset view at Newfound Gap, and older visitors can soak up in a Pigeon Forge log cabin jacuzzi. The possibilities at the Smokies are nearly endless.

Father and son hiking in national park in US

5. Strong Record of Historical Data

There are several ways to learn more about the history of the Smokies. The Database of the Smokies (DOTS) is an online tool operated through the University of Tennessee Libraries. Another digitized archival source includes The Open Parks Network, which compiles data and objects from over 20 national parks in the United States. A physical archive dedicated solely to the Great Smoky Mountains lies in Townsend, Tennessee: there, the Collections Preservation Center holds thousands of original artifacts and historical sources. 

6. Opportunities to Engage Sustainably

Around the Great Smoky Mountains, there are several ways to be a sustainable tourist. Lodging in Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains can be an eco-friendly practice. For example, Camp Atagahi is one of several sustainable lodging options. Technology-free and off-the-grid, Camp Atagahi is one of many that encourages tourists to connect meaningfully with each other and to experience what the local environment has to offer. Activities like river rafting and ziplining are sustainable activities that have a strong presence in the Smokies. Even local eateries look for green options: The Local Goat in Pigeon Forge uses only locally-sourced ingredients and employment. This makes the Smokies an attractive tourist destination for sustainability-minded travelers.

7. Robust Tourism Environment

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most frequently-visited national park in the United States. In 2021, the Great Smoky Mountains recorded over 14 million visitors—more visitors than any year prior. Its tourism numbers surpass other famous national parks, including the Grand Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park. Near the Smokies of Tennessee are also a number of other tourism venues. In the nearby town of Pigeon Forge, a number of attractions and resorts abound, including the famous amusement park Dollywood and The Island resort. In Gatlinburg, there’s the Gatlinburg Space Needle, the amusement venue Ober Gatlinburg, and a scenic tram that overlooks town. Around the Smokies, you’ll find an abundance of things to do and places to visit. 

Sunset over great smoky mountains

There are dozens of important and interesting national parks in the United States, but the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a truly unique experience that will be hard for visitors to forget. Whenever you plan to visit one of the United States’ many national parks, be sure to consider the Great Smoky Mountains as your next destination.

Want to learn more about our sustainable travel destinations in the United States? See our current projects on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail or the Sugar River Region in New Hampshire. Check out our Contact Us page and reach out for additional information!

destination branding two kayak sunsetters

Want to learn how to successfully make your destination stand out from the competition? This article tells you all about destination branding and how to build your own original brand!

How to Build a Successful Destination Brand

The tourism industry is one of the most universally robust industries in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people travel every year, and there are many types of travelers who feed into the industry. Even more people work in the tourism sector. So, how do you attract potential visitors to your tourism destination?

There are plenty of approaches to attract potential customers to a tourist destination. Social media, marketing campaigns, and word of mouth are just a few ways to achieve this. You might see photos of dazzling landscapes on Instagram, see a hotel ad on TV, or read a post about a famous tourism destination in a magazine. What these things have in common is a recall to what makes a destination unique, important, or appealing to a specific audience.

Bringing these features out through tourism marketing is a tactic called destination branding. Think about a famous city—Berlin, for instance. There are a number of images that you probably think of when Berlin comes to mind: the (in)famous Berlin Wall, the unmatched cosmopolitanism, the tall-standing TV Tower, and the authentic Brezeln. A collection of cultural markers like these produces a profile that is unique to Berlin. These markers can then be used to produce and to employ a marketing strategy that attracts potential tourists to Berlin. Of course, this is not specific to just one city; any site can have a brand identity. 

So, the question remains: how do you produce a successful brand for your site? Below, we have compiled a short list of items to get you started on building a successful destination brand.

Berlin skyline

brand your destination like berlin's beautiful skyline with memorable landmarks


Berlin TV Tower (Fernsehturm) has become an iconic piece of Berlin’s identity, completing the panorama of the city alongside Brandenburg Gate or the Berliner Dom

A Brand is the Most Valuable Tool in your Marketing Strategy

A brand goes far deeper than a logo or company slogan. These are simply considered marketing tools. A brand is defined by the public perception and the emotion it makes you feel. It is the promise being made to the target audience that is derived from the product or destination’s uniqueness. Your branding efforts are the process of creating brand messaging and experiences that attract visitors. These should be as compelling and memorable as possible, in order to draw in potential customers. Successful branding occurs when this experience remains in the hearts and minds of the target audience. 

Developing a Valuable Destination Brand Identity

Developing your brand identity, or brand personality, revolves around three main axes:

  • Destination uniqueness;
  • Stakeholders’ and travelers’ perceptions; and
  • Consistency in the marketing campaigns.

A strong brand identity is essential when you are trying to reach potential tourists and attract them to your destination. We could define the brand identity as a summary of the destination’s main traits, the words your main audience would use to describe the destination.

Does your destination offer a wide array of cultural experiences? Are most visitors coming to your destination to relax, or do they come to challenge themselves and take on new adventures? Is your destination mostly suitable for families, groups of friends or romantic getaways?

Developing your brand identity starts by auditing your destination and identifying your main target. It is recommended to involve stakeholders to better understand how they perceive the uniqueness of your destination. Start a conversation with small tourism businesses, travel agents and tour operators promoting your destination, local authority or former visitors and gather their emotions about your destination.

Including the consumer perception of your destination will ensure that the appropriate types of travelers are targeted in your brand messaging. Do not neglect to take a look at competition – locally or internationally – and to think it through: “What do I offer that is different?”, “What is our added value?” You can read an example of destination branding through consumer perceptions from Croatia.

namibia landscape ideal for branding

The wide open Namibian landscape – understanding the consumer perception of your destination’s uniqueness is key to build a strong brand identity

Understanding the travel motivations of your visitors, as well as their decision-making process, will support you in building a suitable brand messaging. Associate experiences with your destination which are as distinctive, compelling, memorable and rewarding as possible. Take the example of Namibia’s online marketing campaign which Solimar ran between 2011 and 2013 that emphasized the breathtaking and seemingly endless natural landscapes of Namibia.

Once this message is clear, your marketing campaigns will help spread your identity and reach your targeted audience. The key in the marketing campaign is consistency! Make sure the brand messaging perceived is coherent on all the elements of your integrated marketing communication. Each support and channel should represent the same brand identity. 

Moreover, the consistency of the brand identity continues on the spot where it is important to build brand value at each point of contact, from signage at the airport to landscapes while driving to the hotel or between parts of a destination. The experience of the traveler must reflect your brand identity.

Finally, keep track of the success of the campaign and reassess your strategy every year, or if a major event has disrupted your campaign (Covid-19 anyone?).

In short, developing a powerful brand identity consists of:

  • Running a destination audit
  • Clarifying who is your target
  • Building your destination SWOT
  • Identifying your competition, their location, and your added value
  • Involving local stakeholders in your branding process and assess their perception of the destination
  • Reassessing your Marketing Strategy annually

turkey destination branding cappadocia

Using the Brand Pyramid for a Strong Destination Brand

One of the most effective ways to produce a powerful destination brand is by using a brand pyramid. Brand pyramids are models that distill the important elements of a site down to an advertising essence. Brand pyramids are important for destination branding, because they clarify the most important aspects of the destination. This helps produce a tagline that markets the message of a destination to potential visitors. 

There are five tiers in the brand pyramid, which are organized from a wide base to a narrow top. The first tier, labeled rational attributes, are tangible destination characteristics. In other words, rational attributes are the markers that can be empirically observed. The physical, quantifiable features of a site are listed here. These features can be diverse, ranging from unique products and services to local cuisines to historic landmarks. 

The second tier is labeled emotional benefits. These are the feelings associated with a site. This tier plays a crucial role in creating a destination brand, because it addresses the tangible emotional experience(s) of visiting a site. The first two tiers work together to create a strong brand image by listing tangible attributes alongside the emotional sentiments that the site produces. 

The third tier of the brand pyramid is brand personality. This lists a group of adjectives that describe the personality of the site. This is how a target audience will describe a site in a few basic words. The brand personality can describe atmospheres and resources, and they can also attract specific audiences. As the public health situation evolves, a brand personality can illuminate how amenable a site is to a specific audience.

The fourth tier, the positioning statement, describes the one-of-a-kind site attributes. Here, brand developers ask which characteristics are seen or experienced only at that site. This is an especially important step in the brand development process. Knowing what makes a site stand out will give shape to a strong brand identity.

The final tier is brand essence. The brand essence is exactly what it sounds like: it distills aspects of all the tiers below to produce an essential brand identity. This is what the brand means, described in a few words. This is the tier that creates a destination brand, usually in the form of a tagline. A great example of the destination branding process was successfully implemented in Solimar’s Jamaica Community Experiences project from 2015-2018.

Solimar DMO Development branding pyramid to help brand a destination

Brand Pyramid model to build a powerful destination brand – Solimar DMO Development Program

Looking for more destination development strategies? Check out Solimar’s Institute for Sustainable Destinations program on DMO Development. Or Contact Us directly for information!

Authors: Caitlyn Marentette / Célia Hulin / Thomas Kalchik

“We rely confidently on Solimar's deep technical experience and professionalism as tourism consultants. You always are exceeding our expectations.”
Leila Calnan, Senior Manager, Tourism Services Cardno Emerging Markets

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