GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — The tourism industry in the Smokies has more than recovered since the wildfires that burned more than 11,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and killed more than 14 people in 2016. While that’s obvious from the traffic, we dove into the numbers and spoke to those who are still rebuilding years later.

Tom Goodwin, owner of Mountain Laurel Chalets, remembers the panic that ensued when the flames got out of hand in the mountains.

“We had a lot of desperate prayers and a rallying sense of our faith … hoping that God would have spared some of the business,” Goodwin added.

Some of the business was spared but 46 properties burned. Goodwin is optimistic about the tourism industry’s continued growth in Sevier County.

“Gatlinburg is doing better than ever,” he said. “We’re rebuilding and we’re taking what was broken and making something new out of it.”

His company is making their new rentals even bigger than the rentals they’re replacing.

We met Goodwin at the site of one of his newest completed rentals named “The Lodge.” It sits where a newly-remodeled, mid-century modern, two-bedroom home known as “Deerview Trail” was destroyed by the fire.

“For years and years and years, people would celebrate anniversaries, honeymoons, babymoons, and birthdays at this property and would book it years in advance,” he said.

Deerview Trail held a maximum of four people. It sat on a 8.5 acre property. Eight new properties, including The Lodge, will soon sit on the land. Together they’ll make up the Retreats at Deerview Trail and increase capacity from four to roughly 48.

We spoke virtually with Pam Hill, co-owner of Stony Brook Cabins, in one of the properties their company manages on Village Loop Road. It was completed in September 2019, and like The Lodge, is also sits where another vacation rental once stood.

“It was just so devastated looking,” Hill said. “It was really difficult at that time to foresee the progress that we have made, to believe that it would come back and be bigger and better than ever.”

Hill’s company lost 15 properties in the fire but have added 20 since 2016.

Marci Claude, public relations manager for the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, explained demand grew after the fires and hasn’t slowed since.

“We’re a popular return destination for generations of families and they all wanted to help,” Claude said. “So, we put out the call the best way to help Gatlinburg right now is to return for a visit.”

And they did.

Data from the state shows visitors spent $2.2 billion in Sevier County in 2016, $2.3 billion in 2017, $2.6 billion in 2018, and $2.8 billion in 2019. While the data shows visitor spending dipped to $2.4 billion in 2020, Hill said it was Stony Brook’s best year ever, despite being closed for a month in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Numbers from the first quarter of this year, she said, show this year to be even better.

Claude credits part of that success to the growing popularity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Numbers from the National Parks Service support that theory. NPS tracks the number of recreation visits to the park. Their reports show 11.3 million visits in 2016 and 2017, 11.4 million in 2018, 12.5 million in 2019, and 12.1 million in 2020.

Monthly numbers this year show the park will likely hit an all-time high number this year.

It’s why Hill is excited about the years ahead.

“Get ready, gang,” Hill said. “The numbers are going to keep increasing and the Smoky Mountains aren’t going anywhere. Fires and devastation destroyed the built, man-made, structures, but the mountains are God-built and they’re smoky mountain strong and they’re going to be around for the foreseeable future.”

Hill says their biggest problem today is finding enough employees to accommodate the demand.

Recent numbers from the global hospitality analyst, Star Reports, show Gatlinburg’s hotel occupancy rate is up 13% while the national rate is down 9%. Claude said 1,200 new hotel rooms could be online in Gatlinburg in three to five years.