Visitors Bureau boss also says current visitor levels not ‘sustainable’
As occupancy and meals revenues continued to soar in Dare County, Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles says the COVID-19 pandemic has played a significant role in those record-shattering numbers. But he also acknowledged the need for more gradual tourism growth, noting that the recent visitor explosion in the county isn’t “sustainable.”
Last week, in his monthly recap, Nettles reported that the October 2021 occupancy revenues, at $43.8 million, marked the 17th straight month of record revenues. Meanwhile, meals collections, at $29.1 million in October, experienced their 10th consecutive record-breaking month.
“There’s no doubt that COVID has just brought us into the spotlight,” Nettles said in an interview with the Voice. “It emphasizes the points that have always set us apart…and I think the fact that we have so many vacation rental homes lend itself well to being able to kind of have a controlled environment, even on vacation.”
The October 2021 occupancy revenues are up 6 percent over the October 2020 numbers, which were up a whopping 83 percent from the 2019 figures. As for meals revenues, October numbers represented a 30 percent increase over last year’s total for the same month.
“All those things that we highlighted before just took on a whole new meaning with COVID and I think it led to a lot of first-time visitors checking us out,” Nettles pointed out, adding that the temporary halt of international travel and cruise vacation, coupled with the popularity of the Netflix hit, Outer Banks, all likely contributed to the Outer Banks’ growing popularity.
But Nettles stated that the soaring numbers aren’t likely to last and aren’t an ideal situation to be in, explaining that steady controlled growth is preferred.
“I think that what we have been experiencing is not a new normal. I do think at some point, it’s gonna’ chill out and kind of dip,” Nettles asserted. “I don’t think it’s sustainable for us to have the amount of visitation that we’ve had.”
Nettles said it’s not sustainable in part because of the massive shift in employment due to COVID, with the impact particularly acute in the hospitality and tourism industry.
“Nationally, we lost more jobs than any other sector, and we’ve been the slowest to fill those jobs,” he said. “A lot of people are either staying out of the workforce or this has been enough to prompt them to rethink their careers and what they’re doing and consider other types of employment. We’ve seen the workforce shortages here, locally.”
While businesses have been trying to manage the workforce shortages by employing such measures as closing on certain days or shortening hours, Nettles pointed to the strain it creates for business owners. “You can do that for a year,” he said. “But you just can’t do that forever.”
When then tourism boom will ease, Nettles acknowledged, isn’t really clear. But he added that,” It looks like for the first half of next year, the visitation projections are very strong.”
Nettles stressed that the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau has always focused on trying to grow the non-peak months, and not cram more people into the summer months.
“It’s not in anyone’s best interest to have too much visitation or to cram more people into summer in particular because it creates a situation that’s not good for visitors and it’s surely not good for the people who live here,” he said. “That’s not what we want. I would much prefer the days when we were growing consistently and steadily four percent a year. That’s manageable and responsible growth.
“How long will all this continue?” he asked. “COVID and our record visitation…we’re in uncharted territory.”