State News

Outer Banks meeting challenges in troubled economy

More people visited the Outer Banks in June than a year ago despite soaring gasoline prices and other impediments to tourism, a newspaper reported Monday.

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MANTEO, N.C. — More people visited the Outer Banks in June than a year ago despite soaring gasoline prices and other impediments to tourism, the region's visitors bureau reported Monday.

This year, the Outer Banks vacationers have also dealt with drifting smoke from two wildfires, closed beaches and the troubled economy.

"We were a little bit anxious and little bit nervous about how the tourism industry was going to fare," said Carolyn McCormick, director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.

Statistics compiled by the visitors bureau, though, show a 7 percent rise in occupancy in June, when 4.5 million people visited.

"This is our family time, and we come no matter how much it costs," said Amy Jefferies, whose family had traveled from Rockingham County.

The growth came mostly from rental homes, up 10 percent in June and bringing in more than $56 million. Occupancy rises included time shares and bed-and-breakfast inns.

Occupancy at campgrounds, hotels and motels, however, was down in June. Travel experts said that reservations for rental cottages are made long in advance, encouraging vacationers to stick with them and to eschew more impromptu accommodations.

Restaurants experienced a slight decline in business, with gross receipts dropping more than 1 percent in June, according to the visitors bureau. For the first six months of the year, restaurant sales were flat at $75.8 million.

"It's not terrible, but it's also not one of our banner years," said Nags Head restaurant owner Dan Bibey.

Owner Teresa Bateman said traffic at RV's Sugar Creek Soundfront Restaurant has relieved her fears about a gloomy tourism forecast.

"It's been a good surprise, and we've been happy about it," Bateman said. "We feel very fortunate."

The drop in restaurant receipts indicate that visitors might be spending less money once they arrive at their rental house. Allen Burrus, whose family owns a grocery store in Hatteras Village, said customers are buying fewer expensive items, such as steak.

Burrus' store on Hatteras also had to contend with the closure of miles of federal beaches to protect the nests of endangered birds and sea turtles.

County officials have said the beach closures hurt the island's economy, but occupancy also increased on Hatteras, according to the visitors bureau.

Burrus, who is also vice chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, said he had been concerned about the beach closures.

"I own a small mom-and-pop grocery store, but I'm doing well," Burrus said. "Business is up."

The visitors bureau countered a gloomy tourism forecast with a marketing offense, including more Internet advertising and more local marketing efforts.

Travel experts said the next challenges facing the region will be to gear up for the fall season – and keep the reservations coming in for next summer.

McCormick said the overall gain demonstrates the viability of the Outer Banks as a tourist destination, with a sound base and a coastline that sells itself.

"We rock! We continue to be an awesome destination," McCormick said.

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Mike Charbonneau, Reporter
Anne Johnson, Web Editor

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