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2006 industry report: travel & tourism

High gasoline prices don't unravel travel's big year

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TREND: Lodging revenue statewide increased 6.1% in 2005, partly due to a recovery in business travel and good weather for tourists.

OUTLOOK: Barring bad weather of big increases in gasoline prices, 2006 should be another good year.

From the coast to the mountains, North Carolina tourist attractions reported a strong 2005, despite a gasoline shortage that curtailed some travel Labor Day weekend and higher prices at the pump, which made travel more expensive. Some credit a new state law that prohibited public schools from beginning classes earlier than Aug. 25. Others say a mild mid-Atlantic hurricane season helped. Also getting credit: The U.S. Open made a return trip to Pinehurst, and the colorful fall leaf season — a big draw in the mountain counties — started later but lasted longer than usual.

Count Carol Lohr among those embracing the school-opening law. “We could tell a big difference for the month of August,” says the executive director of the Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority, which promotes Carteret County’s beaches. Business was up 10% at some attractions in August, which contributed to a 13% hike for the year. “We had a great summer as far as weather. Gas prices didn’t matter.”

She expects 2006 to be even better. The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is scheduled to reopen in May. It has been closed since January 2004 for an expansion that tripled its size and added features such as a stingray touch tank and jellyfish gallery.

Carolyn McCormick, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, credits good weather for driving tourism revenue up about 8%. “It was the strongest year we’ve ever had in gross revenue from occupancy and people dining out.” That came despite many cancellations for the Labor Day weekend and in the face of a major advertising campaign by Ocean City, Md., that targeted Outer Banks regulars. The school-calendar change contributed, she says, but not by luring more guests. “It helps us more when it comes to the work force. The majority of our market comes from D.C., Virginia, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Most of them start school after Labor Day and have for quite a while.”

She believes 2006 will be another good year, mostly because some Gulf Coast attractions are still rebuilding. That won’t change her marketing strategy. She’ll still emphasize the barrier islands’ cultural significance and natural beauty. “We know we’re not a boardwalk, and we know we don’t have amusement parks.”

The North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, on the other hand, is trying to spice things up a little. Spokesman Rod Hackney says the zoo will operate a carousel featuring exotic animals instead of horses. It is scheduled to open in April, and Hackney hopes it will bolster visitation, which he says was up by 3% to about 709,000 for the fiscal year ended June 30.

In Pinehurst, officials estimate that the U.S. Open golf tournament, which drew more than 400,000 spectators, boosted the state economy by $190 million. Don Padgett, president of Pinehurst Resort, part of Dallas-based ClubCorp, says the resort’s revenue was up 15%. “It’s really hard to compare to other years because we shut down No. 2 for almost five weeks. That’s why some people come.” That pent-up demand to play No. 2 and other courses that shut down for the Open is part of the reason reservations are up nearly 6%, he says.

In Asheville, Jerry Douglas, senior vice president of marketing and sales for The Biltmore Co., says Biltmore Estate had a soft spring but ended the year on a strong note after its best November ever. Occupancy at the Inn on Biltmore Estate was up 11%.

Jim Hobbs, executive director of the Raleigh-based North Carolina Hotel & Motel Association, says the lodging industry had a good year based mainly on the return of business travelers. Occupancy was up 2% through October, while revenue was up 6.1%.

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