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Tourism was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. But North Carolina’s hospitality industry adjusted better than most states and is poised for a rebound, thanks to diverse attractions, open space and public health programs.
Thirty miles from the mainland ever-shifting sands form North Carolina’s Outer Banks. They’re a front-row seat to Mother Nature’s grand show. “The wind blows harder, the waves break bigger and you just feel connected with nature and the elements, in a deeper way,” says Lee Nettles, a longtime coastal resident and Outer Banks Visitors Bureau’s executive director. “Even on our busiest week, it’s possible to walk out onto the seashore and look in either direction and not see another person. I think it’s important, especially in this day and age, to feel small and kind of recognize your place in the world.”
Outer Banks tourism took off in the 1940s, and visitors continue to come from far and wide to watch wild horses graze, 300 bird species pause during their migrations and dolphins leap from blue water. They climb towering lighthouses that steered sailors through treacherous waters — the Graveyard of the Atlantic. In between, they visit National Park Service sites, tour museums, shop, fish, boat, swim and enjoy soft sand under their feet.
Dare County, which stretches from Hatteras to Duck, is at the Outer Banks’ heart. Visitors spent a record $1.4 billion there in 2020, according to VisitNC, the tourism promotion arm of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. But it wasn’t smooth sailing for the tourism industry everywhere in the state that year, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Stay-at-home orders were issued around the world to slow the pandemic’s spread, nearly stopping the tourism industry in the process. “The last year and a half have had challenges,” Nettles says. North Carolina visitors spent $19.7 billion in 2020, 32% less than the prior year, and 86 of the state’s 100 counties recorded less visitor spending. Tourism employment followed suit, declining 26% to 178,685.
Leisure travel is behind most of North Carolina tourism’s success during the pandemic, setting up a quicker than expected recovery. “We expect this summer to be as strong, if not slightly stronger, than last year,” says Jim Browder, Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority executive director. “Beaches and mountains will continue to be in high demand.” Business travel, including meetings and conventions, has lagged, but it’s expected to return. “You can’t form new relationships over Zoom,” says Andrew Schmidt, president and CEO of Greeville-Pitt County Convention and Visitors Bureau and recently named president of the North Carolina Travel Industry Association. “You can’t top face-to-face.”
North Carolina offers what tourists changed by the pandemic want: plenty of things to do in a safe environment. Its variety of attractions, spread from its 300-mile-long shore to the highest mountain in the East, did much to keep its tourism industry afloat during the pandemic. Other efforts also helped the tourism industry find calm waters. Count on Me NC, for example, was a public health program that helped business create a safe environment and then promote their efforts to residents and visitors alike.
The Little League Softball World Series was played in Greenville’s Stallings Stadium in August 2021, the first of a five-year run in the city. Though COVID-19 restrictions blocked international entrants and limited each entry to 99 spectators, 10 U.S. teams participated in the tournament, which was covered by ESPN. “That’s the thing about sports tourism,” Schmidt says. “It’s valid exposure for your city. That and outdoor leisure and recreation are the two markets that stayed stable throughout COVID across North Carolina.”
North Carolina is the ticket for sports enthusiasts. “The great thing about North Carolina is you’ve got such a variety of sports and event-watching opportunities, from equestrian to baseball and college football with tailgating,” Schmidt says. “And let’s not forget college basketball. You could absolutely do a ‘sports vacation.’”
Many auto-racing fans regularly travel to North Carolina. It’s home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and many short tracks where its inductees got their start. More than 50,000 gathered for the 2021 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which also is home to the first four-lane dragstrip and a 4/10-mile dirt track.
Traditional stick-and-ball sports are a win with tourists, too. The NFL’s Carolina Panthers, NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes play in North Carolina. There are 12 minor league baseball teams. There’s professional soccer and of course golf. Pinehurst — the home of American golf — will again host the U.S. Open in 2024, and the PGA Tour has regular stops in Charlotte and Greensboro.
The Outer Banks’ 100 miles of shoreline and Crystal Coast’s 85 miles offer extensive oceanfront opportunities for children, couples and groups. Many are set in wide-open spaces. “People are wanting to get out and travel, and outdoor recreation is an excellent option,” Schmidt says.
It’s no different in western North Carolina, where 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell stands taller than any other peak east of the Mississippi River. There is hiking, camping, golf, biking and places that welcome the family dog. “Our fresh, wide-open spaces and long-standing reputation for health, wellness and connection with nature have drawn travelers to heal and rejuvenate for more than a century,” says Victoria Isley, president and CEO of Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Besides its natural beauty and cultural legacies, Asheville is also known for its distinct arts and music scene, small boutique retailers, talented street performers, craft beverage purveyors and its highly creative and collaborative food scene.”
This spring, Asheville Wellness Tours will offer “Forest Bathe in the Light of the Full Moon,” a guided twilight nature walk inspired by Shinrin-Yoku, the Japanese art of immersing oneself in a forest environment. “In many ways, Asheville has always been North Carolina’s creative frontier,” Isley says. “Surrounded by the highest peaks in the eastern U.S., residents of this mountain city are driven by a proud, rugged spirit of independence and creativity. There’s so much to love here.”
Arts & culture
Many North Carolina cities, including Asheville, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Raleigh, Wilmington and Winston-Salem, offer venues for large gatherings, events and productions. “We’re very well-positioned for arts and culture,” Schmidt says. “A lot of national productions come through here.”
Stages statewide welcome Broadway musicals, such as “Hamilton,” Opera Carolina productions and professional dance troupes such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Charlotte Ballet. Major-label recording artists from every musical genre perform at clubs, theatres, arenas and expansive outdoor venues.
Museums statewide meet myriad interests. Mount Airy, for example, is home to the Andy Griffith Museum and was the basis for his iconic television show. North Carolina’s strong role in the country’s military might is on display at U.S. Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville. And in Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks, the Wright Brothers National Memorial details how manned flight first took off.
Accommodations, amenities and activities are safe and ready. “Our biggest challenge is balancing the demand of the many visitors that return year after year with the abundance of new visitors that wish to return as well,” says the Crystal Coast’s Browder. “It’s a great problem to have right now.” ■
— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.