Many of us opted to vacation closer to home during the COVID years, skipping trips to big cities and foreign countries to do some socially distanced exploring here in North Carolina. I’ve been everywhere from Burnsville to Buxton and haven’t been bored by my lack of air travel.
So it comes as no surprise that visitor spending increased last year in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties, a strong sign that our tourism economy isn’t limited to the most popular destinations. Overall, spending gained 45% in 2021 compared with 2020, according to data released in August by the N.C. Department of Commerce.
But the biggest growers included some surprises: Tiny Gates County, along the Virginia border, had the biggest percentage increase over 2020 at 83.4%.
It beat out Buncombe County (Asheville), which ranked No. 2. Of course, Buncombe’s $2.6 billion in 2021 visitor spending far exceeded the $9.4 million spent in Gates.
The call of the mountains also helped Buncombe net more tourism dollars than larger Wake County for the first time, although that could change as business travel returns this year.
For places with a relatively small tourism economy — and Gates County doesn’t even have a hotel — it doesn’t take much to move the needle. A few more Airbnb properties serving visitors to the lovely Merchants Millpond State Park might have triggered the jump. There’s one called “Dome Sweet Dome,” because you stay inside a dome.
I hiked at the state park last fall and bought some coffee beans from Gates-based Corner High Coffee in the park gift shop, so I can take $10 worth of credit for the Gates tourism boom.
Gates County isn’t the only surprise in the top 10 for 2021 visitor spending growth (at least if you’re going by percentages). So here’s the rest of that list, and my speculation as to the attraction that’s drawing more visitors. Each county saw an increase of at least 60% over the previous year.
3. Beaufort County: Bath was North Carolina’s first town, and who doesn’t love touring buildings that are nearly 300 years old?
4. Moore County: Sure, Pinehurst has some of the nation’s top golf courses, but have you checked out the cool Country Bookshop in Southern Pines that just happens to be owned by the same company as this magazine?
5. Alexander County: The Hiddenite Arts & Heritage Center lets you explore sprawling museum exhibits full of antiques, gems and local art in the old Lucas Mansion.
6. Cabarrus County: Mount Pleasant is home to Southern Grace Distilleries. It’s located in an old prison and they offer “whiskey prison tours.”
7. Perquimans County: When I drove through here a few years ago, a man selling melons on the street sent me to eat at Story’s Seafood on the outskirts of Hertford.
8. Bertie County: Windsor might be the only town in the state where you can camp out in a treehouse on the Cashie River and then take a walk to grab barbecue at Bunn’s.
9. Randolph County: Take the scenic route to the N.C. Zoo and you might pass through the ghost mill town of Coleridge. The old company store, bank and mill building look much as they did nearly a century ago.
10. Madison County: Hickory Nut Gorge Brewery has restored the old Mars Hill Theater, and they still show movies regularly but with craft beer. ■