Visitor spending rises statewide

People are traveling across North Carolina and spending more money than before, according to data recently released by the NC Department of Commerce.

All 100 counties saw increases in visitor spending in 2021, showcasing the continual recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial impact. Gates County had the highest percentage increase of visitor spending across the state, up 83.4 percent from its total in 2020.

According to the numbers, Gates County had a total of $9.35 million in visitor spending in 2021. That total was divided among several categories including lodging ($2.45 million), food & beverage ($2.94 million), recreation ($1.32 million), retail ($0.85 million), and transportation ($1.80 million).

“There are a lot of things happening in Gates County,” said Linda Hofler, who serves on the county’s Board of Commissioners and is one of the people working to help boost tourism to the area.

Merchants Millpond State Park is a big draw and an asset to the county, but Hofler said that’s not the only thing they have for visitors to enjoy. She mentioned regular events like the Gates County Rodeo and the Beaver Lake Ski Championships. Outdoor activities – like boating access on the river – and local small businesses – like Studio 32 which showcases artwork and provides art classes – are other examples of what draws visitors to Gates County.

“All that brings in people,” she explained. “They might buy gas here. They might buy food here. Some of them may stay [overnight]. All those things add up.”

Their goal in the future, Hofler said, is to keep publicizing what hidden gems the county has to offer.

“We’ve got to get the word out,” she concluded.

In Bertie County, visitor spending was up 65.6 percent compared to the numbers in 2020. The $20.49 million total included $5.21 million for lodging, $6.59 million for food & beverage, $2.58 million for recreation, $1.73 million for retail, and $4.39 million for transportation.

“We are very happy that the county tourism numbers bounced back after a year heavily impacted by COVID,” said Lewis Hoggard, Director of the Windsor/Bertie Chamber of Commerce.

Hoggard noted that the pandemic was still having an impact during 2021, but more visitors were venturing out to Bertie County than before.

“We are hopeful that this year’s numbers will be even better,” he added.

Northampton County, which was one of the few counties that continued to see visitor spending increases during 2020, also had an increase of 24.9 percent during 2021. That total amount was $26.94 million, divided into the categories of lodging ($6.77 million), food & beverage ($8.39 million), recreation ($3.86 million), retail ($2.44 million), and transportation ($5.47 million).

“We’re happy with what we got,” said Dick Collier, head of Northampton County’s Tourism Development Authority.

Collier reported that they’re working on increasing lodging options in the county which will bring in more dollars in the future.

“We’re improving our small business in the county, and that is also helping,” he continued, adding that the TDA has several plans they’re currently working on to keep increasing revenues.

Hertford County had the highest total amount of visitor spending among the local Roanoke-Chowan area, bringing in $29.89 million during 2021. That amount equaled a 17.6 percent increase from the previous year.

Hertford County’s total included $6.05 million for lodging, $10.19 million for food & beverage, $3.77 million for recreation, $2.46 million for retail, and $7.43 for transportation.

Daryl Williams, Director of Murfreesboro’s Chamber of Commerce, said he was pleased to see the numbers for Hertford County in 2021. He noted that Murfreesboro is known for having several restaurant options and the town has been growing with new retailers as well, all of which help contribute to the county’s numbers.

“We’ve seen quite a bit of increase in day trippers, especially on Fridays and Saturdays,” Williams also reported.

Williams said he expects numbers to continue to increase in the future. He noted that the Town Council recently approved an increase in occupancy tax, and when that takes effect, those revenues will be used for more tourism development.

Amy Braswell, Executive Vice President of the Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce, said 2021 was a banner year for Ahoskie and Hertford County.

“Our visitors come primarily from the many business, industry, and medical travelers who come in and out for work. They fill our lodging establishments, eat in our restaurants, and buy fuel,” she explained. “We are very appreciative to these industries and their comprehensive impact on our local economy.”

The data from NC Department of Commerce came from an annual study commissioned by Visit North Carolina and conducted by Tourism Economics in collaboration with the U.S. Travel Association.

“The strong economic results for one of our most vital industries speak to the resilience of our local tourism partners and to the state’s enduring appeal,” said North Carolina Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders in a press release. “We celebrate the qualities that make North Carolina an attractive destination and are inspired by the people who provide visitors to our state an outstanding travel experience.”

According to the study, the top five counties with the highest expenditures in 2021 were Mecklenburg County ($4.1 billion), Buncombe County ($2.6 billion), Wake County ($2.3 billion), Dare County ($1.8 billion), and Guilford County ($1.3 billion).

The five counties with the top percentage of spending increases were Gates County (83 percent), Buncombe County (81 percent), Beaufort County (71 percent), Moore County (70 percent), and Alexander County (68 percent).

Seventy-five counties had spending totals that topped 2019’s numbers.

Tourism employment was also up during 2021. Locally, Gates County was ranked number two in percentage increase in tourism employment, up 25 percent since 2020.

North Carolina’s total visitor spending in 2021 was $28.9 billion, which is a 45 percent increase from 2020 and just one percentage point below the record-breaking total in 2019.

“Just as we’re gratified by the achievement statewide in 2021, the county-level report underscores the value of each destination,” said Wit Tuttell, Director of Visit NC, in the same press release. “This is where travelers experience the state, from its natural beauty to the character of our people.”

“It’s also the heart of the economic impact, the sustenance for thousands of businesses and local governments,” Tuttell continued. “We look forward to raising the arc even higher as we welcome more people to places they won’t find anywhere else.”