‘I think that suggests we’re normalizing,’ says OBVB’s Nettles
The numbers tell the story. The double-digit growth in visitation and revenue that Dare County saw in 2020 and 2021 has come to a halt. In fact, in 2022, there was a slight but measurable decrease in visitation, according to reporting by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau (OBVB).
Occupancy collections in 2022 actually did see an increase over 2021, but that increase—5.6% according to the OBVB—was less than the 6.5% rate of inflation according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That would seem to indicate increases in rental rates offset much of the decrease in visitation.
According to Lee Nettles, Executive Director of the OBVB, the decrease in visitation was expected. “I think that suggests that we’re normalizing. The last two years don’t represent a new normal, I don’t think,” he said. In discussing the record increases in visitation the county saw in 2020 and 2021, Nettles asserted that “It wasn’t healthy for our community or the experience of visitors and residents.”
Even before COVID created a surge in visitation, Dare County had been seeing a steady rise in visitors. In the decade between 2010 and 2019, occupancy collections increased by 45.2%, significantly greater than the rate of inflation for that period. By comparison, the two-year increase between 2019 and 2021 was a whopping 67.2%.
“It just wasn’t sustainable,” Nettles said, describing the current slowdown as “looking like a soft, jagged landing…The bottom could have dropped out more, so I feel pretty fortunate all things considered.”
At the same time, Nettles does think that the Outer Banks has been able to retain some of the first-time visitors that were a part of that remarkable surge in visitation. “We picked up new visitors during COVID. So the question is, how many of those new first-time visitors turn into a repeat guest? I don’t think we’ll get all the way back [down] to 2019 [numbers]. I think it will be higher than that,” he said.
The COVID surge in local tourism was created by several circumstances. Flying was difficult and discouraged and vacationers were concerned about gathering in locations where people were in close proximity to one another. In that environment, the Outer Banks beaches represented a safer drive-to location where outdoor activities were available.
“They [visitors] definitely had fewer off options,” Nettles added. But that is no longer the case, and he points to another factor in the slowing of visitation. Many of the traveler destinations that had struggled during COVID are now receiving additional financial support.
“A lot of these heavily impacted areas, they are beneficiaries of extra appropriations from state and local government,” he said. “Now that they’ve reopened, they’ve added to their ad budgets to try and lure people back as quickly as possible. So it’s just adding to the competition that’s out there.”
Significantly, for Nettles what is now happening with Outer Banks visitation has created an opportunity to think about the role tourism will play in the future.
“We’ve traditionally come at that from the just purely economic perspective. But we’re taking a more holistic approach to it now,” he said. “We’ve always come at it from the perspective of the $1.8 billion tourism industry and the 12,200 jobs and tax relief that it provides. And all those things are benefits, but it’s only one side of the equation. It doesn’t consider the negative impact. It’s imperative that we do that in order for tourism to continue to thrive and be a productive part of our economy and our community.”
There are initiatives that the OBVB board has put in place that Nettles believes will highlight how tourism can benefit the quality of life of the community.
“The tourism board has …taken steps, such as working with our nonprofit organizations locally to try and better connect them with visitors to expand the available resources, whether it’s money or extra hands [to help with events] that visitors can provide,” he said.
The 20-year tourism plan for the Outer Banks that is currently being developed for the OBVB is an effort by the organization to better manage how visitation impacts the community.
“I think that the path to responsible tourism growth is really about closing the gap between the tourism industry and the people that live here. My hope is that the recommendations that we’ll get from that plan are going to put front and center what we need to keep that dialogue going and just work together,” Nettles said.