2005 industry report: travel & tourism

School rule will make late summer less of a bummer

Tour guide

TREND: More leisure time in mid- to late August for North Carolina’s public-school students.

OUTLOOK: As much as an 8% increase in revenue.

Anybody who says it’s easy to be a kid these days isn’t paying attention. Sure, kids a century ago were more likely to spend summers working on family farms tending crops and animals — often under a blazing sun. But kids in the 21st century have a summertime duty to the economy, too. And the governor and legislature want to make sure school doesn’t prevent them from doing it.

Starting with the 2005-06 school year, North Carolina public schools, other than year-round ones, may start classes no earlier than Aug. 25 and must end by June 10. That will add about two weeks to the summer holiday and perhaps $1 billion a year to a tourism industry that pulled in about $12.6 billion in 2003. If kids uphold their end of the bargain, they’ll spend more time knocking colored golf balls through miniature windmills and streaking down water slides — often under a blazing sun.

While it’s easy to clear kids’ schedules for more travel, it isn’t easy to predict the boost to the tourism industry. East Carolina University hospitality-management professor James Chandler arrived at the $1 billion figure by estimating that 10 more days of summer would boost hotel revenue $300 million, based on summer data from the last five years. That, he says, would mean an additional $700 million in spending on things such as food, souvenirs and attractions.

Critics say the true benefit could be much lower. However, the prospect of extra revenue — even if less than what Chandler forecast — was enough for the General Assembly to pass the bill. Gov. Mike Easley calls it “a win for travel and tourism.”

Tourism officials think so, too. “We are expecting the later school start to have a big impact here,” says Carol Lohr, executive director of the Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority in Morehead City. Spending there drops 60% when school starts.

Business travel accounts for just 14% of North Carolina’s visitor volume, but the outlook for growth is good. In its 2004 midyear survey, the Alexandria, Va.-based National Business Travel Association reported that more than 60% of corporate travel managers surveyed nationwide said their companies were spending more on travel in 2004 than in 2003. More than 70% expected to book more hotel rooms.

Meanwhile, from mountains to coast, tourism officials reported busy summer seasons in 2004. Ninety percent of tourists come to North Carolina by car, but high gasoline prices had little effect. At the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, for example, 100,000 more people visited during the fiscal year that ended June 30 than in the previous year. It was the most since 2000.

The Outer Banks ended summer with business up 4% over 2003, according to Carolyn McCormick, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. In the west, Mitchell County, which includes sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway, was on its way to its best year since 2000 at the end of the summer, says Patti Jensen, director of tourism at the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce.

But nature ruined the rebound. In September, rain and wind from hurricanes Frances and Ivan downed trees and power lines and washed out parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The state Tourism Division estimates losses in the 16-county western region at $87.5 million Sept. 6-24. Though some parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway will remain closed for up to a year, most damaged attractions were repaired quickly. “The main issue has been trying to get people to understand that all that is behind us,” says Marla Tambellini, assistant vice president at the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

As the western counties dried out, Concord Mills celebrated its fifth anniversary and continued its reign as the state’s top tourist attraction. The 1.4 million-square-foot shopping mall in Cabarrus County surpassed the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2003, with 15.3 million visitors. Annual retail sales in Cabarrus grew 7% to $2.6 billion in the fiscal year that ended in June.

The state tourism industry should get a boost in 2005 from the U.S. Open men’s golf tournament at Pinehurst Resort in June. In 1999, the U.S. Open at Pinehurst produced an economic impact of $170 million.