NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Local tourism experts predict it will be a busy summer as once Covid-cautious travelers beeline for the coast to make up for lost time.
“New Hanover County is seeing the return of visitors,” said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority, last week during the Arts Council of Wilmington/New Hanover County summit. “If you’ve been downtown, especially starting about Thursday or Friday with this beautiful weather that we’ve been having, you’re seeing visitors on the streets, out and about.”
2019 was the greatest year on record for the hospitality industry in New Hanover County. Local tourism expenditures surpassed $658 million. Nearly 6,700 workers were employed in travel and tourism jobs. Then, just months into the new year, news of Covid-19 spreading throughout the region closed public beaches and shuttered eateries and attractions for months, as health officials scrambled to learn more about the novel coronavirus.
After beaches reopened around May 2020, guests began booking short-term rentals, often while simultaneously homeschooling children or working remotely. Families still felt comfortable staying in rental homes, limiting their travel to the surf, Hufham explained. The steady number of tourists in seaside communities was a surprise to the visitor’s bureau, which was expecting the area to suffer more of an economic blow from a lack of beachgoers.
Through the pandemic, New Hanover County’s tourism industry benefited from its coastal environment. Hufham said beach and mountain destinations fared much better than metropolitan hubs, such as Charlotte and Raleigh.
“We’re not known as a crowded destination,” Hufham said. “We have so many outdoor activities and venues and things people can do when they come here that really feel safe.”
Room occupancy tax collections were up 48% on Kure and Carolina beaches and 25% on Wrightsville Beach over last year from July 2020 to February 2021.
“The beaches had a lot of traffic to them, even with Covid,” Hufham said.
Now Hufham suspects renters who return for the summer will be ready to visit the local venues and restaurants they missed out on.
Countywide, room occupancy tax revenue is up 10% The Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau previously projected a 33% deficit.
Although beach tourism held stable, the City of Wilmington and convention center district are still rebounding from the rough past year. Those areas saw the most adverse impacts stemming from cancellations of group and business travel. Room occupancy tax dropped 15% in Wilmington and fell 29% in the convention center district from July 2020 to February 2021.
As a new executive order lifts most restrictions this month, the visitors bureau is anticipating “major turnarounds” with business and group events resuming at the convention center in the second half of 2021, Hufham said.
Executive Order No. 209, effective mid-May, dropped capacity restrictions, social distancing requirements and mask mandates.
Hufham reported restaurants and attractions are already sharing summer-season numbers even though it’s still spring, and advance bookings are in full force.
“I’ve heard some of them say, ‘If you don’t have your house or reservation, if you get into summer, you may not find one,’” Hufham said.
Some businesses still face challenges in the wake of the pandemic, such as the worker shortage, which is preventing many restaurants from reaping the full benefits of the influx of tourists. In an effort to return people to jobs, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order Friday to require proof of work search from individuals seeking unemployment benefits.
Hufham said it’s still unlikely the county will match the impressive numbers of 2019 in the coming years as business travel remains low. But the re-growth is expected to start now.
“We’re very optimistic about what the summer’s going to bring,” Hufham said, “much different than we were 14 months ago.”
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