First it was the faltering economy, then the birds, specifically nesting plovers, an imperiled species that prompted the closing of some popular Cape Hatteras National Seashore fishing beaches. Together, figures Carolyn McCormick, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, they cast a pall over tourism. Then came a real pall, a fire at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge that wafted smoke over Eastern North Carolina.
The impact of the economic downturn and fire, which by July continued to smolder over more than 40,000 acres, won’t be fully known until books are balanced at year-end. The likely answer is that it could have been worse. “You’re losing some wildlife and natural scenery, but in terms of dollar impact on such things as commercial agriculture and tourism, the effect is still modest,” N.C. State University economist Michael Walden says.
A larger concern is $4-a-gallon gasoline. Though Outer Banks tourism — typically more than 5 million visitors annually — was expected to increase 8% for the fiscal year ended in June, travel receipts for April and May were down. The visitors bureau passed a restrained $5 million budget for the next fiscal year, anticipating little growth in tourism.
Meanwhile, the N.C. Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development says a recent survey showed that about half the 400 Tar Heels queried expected to travel this year, though fewer planned to leave the state. Those findings could contain good and bad news for state tourism, which grossed $15.4 billion in 2006. Good, because in-state attractions could benefit. Bad because, if residents in other states feel the same way about travel, the survey presages fewer visitors from outside North Carolina.
What to do? The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, which spent about $1.2 million in Internet advertising and $900,000 for print ads in the year ended June 30, moved much of its current-year spending up to July and August. “I can’t sit at my desk and make decisions 12 months out,” McCormick says. The summer campaign will try to lure visitors who live within 300 miles.
The state is taking a similar approach, concentrating its efforts from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta. But unlike in most years, some tourism officials will pray for rain. They say a torrential downpour is the only way the peat-fueled Pocosin Lakes fire will be extinguished.