Turbo-tourism driving full-time residential growth in Carteret County

For Carteret County, tourists who put down permanent roots on the coast are confirming the turbo-tourism phenomenon and leading residential growth on the Crystal Coast.

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Abbey Slattery
, WRAL Digital Solutions
This article was written for our sponsor, Crystal Coast Economic Development Foundation.

In Carteret County, tourism is king. According to the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce, the tourism industry provides more than 3,000 jobs for permanent residents and has an annual economic impact of nearly $325 million in the county. For many who frequently vacation on the Crystal Coast, the desire to call Carteret County home grows with each visit, until eventually, they decide to put down roots permanently.

For the county's Economic Development Department, this phenomenon has come to be known as "turbo-tourism."

"I first heard the term a decade ago in a speech by a tourism entrepreneur named Pat Mason, who was the co-founder of the Center for Carolina Living and He used 'turbo-tourism' to describe the long-term economic benefits of tourism to a community that transcends the initial visitor experience," said Don Kirkman, Carteret County Economic Development director. "It makes a great deal of sense. Most non-native Carteret County residents started as tourists, and they fell in love with the Crystal Coast. This became their vacation destination of choice and the place where they wanted to live full-time."

According to Mason's thesis, turbo-tourists often follow a similar pattern.

An initial visit leads to more frequent visits, and then to a second home investment — often a condominium — which might initially be put into a rental program. Over time, the second home owner wishes to spend more time there, and the owner takes the property off the rental market to increase personal and family use. Or alternately, the owner buys a separate property — frequently a single-family home — for personal use while keeping the rental property, knowing they will someday move to the county as full-time residents.

While some communities are skeptical about newcomers, Carteret County welcomes them with open arms. After all, a large portion of the people who call the Crystal Coast home aren't local themselves, but rather products of turbo-tourism. Some of these transplants moved to the coast to work remotely or to retire, while others arrived and started new businesses or joined the workforce, further feeding the local economy.

Many tourists initially visit during the peak summer season and spend much of their time on the beach, but with more frequent vacations, the turbo-tourists quickly discover there's a lot more to the Crystal Coast than the sand and sea. People discover Carteret County offers fine dining, great arts, culture and entertainment, and a wealth of amenities and outdoor activities that one can enjoy year-round.

"Because the majority of people who reside here aren't from here, it doesn't have the cliquish mentality that many other towns and communities have, where it can be hard to socially assimilate into a new community," Kirkman said. "Here, that's just not the case. There are many opportunities for people to move here and immediately become involved in all kinds of organizations and networks. Also, the nonprofit and philanthropic communities here are thriving, so it's a welcoming place where one can easily and quickly meet new friends and feel at home."

Not only does the county offer a long list of charities and nonprofits with which one can get involved, it also has some of the top public schools in the state, as well as an affiliation through Carteret Health Care with the prestigious Mayo Clinic Care Network.

Additionally, a long list of annual events make the area an entertaining and fun place to be, not just in the summer, but year-round.

For county and municipal leaders and economic development advocates like Kirkman, the more people in Carteret County, the more positive the economic impact.

Turbo-tourism is a major long-term economic engine, catalyzing new housing growth and new businesses, as well as generating new property and retail sales taxes. In Kirkman's opinion, the local government tax revenues generated by the pipeline of turbo-tourists coming to the Crystal Coast is the primary reason Carteret County consistently has the lowest county property tax rate in North Carolina.

"Obviously, both permanent residents and tourists contribute substantially to retail sales, but in terms of property taxes, you have to own property to pay those. So as more and more people who may have started here as visitors choose to invest in property, whether for a personal residence, a rental program, or a business property, it generates significant local government revenues," Kirkman said. "The property investment, of course, drives a great deal of activity in new construction and the variety of jobs that are associated with that, so it has a huge positive economic domino effect."

Interstate highways generate enormous economic benefits, and U.S. 70 — which runs from Raleigh to Carteret County — is undergoing major upgrades to become Interstate 42. The new Interstate will cut up to an hour off the trip from Raleigh to Carteret County, and the Economic Development Department anticipates an increased influx of turbo-tourists with the completion of each new bypass and improvement.

It's already happening — not just from U.S. 70 corridor improvements but from U.S. 17 upgrades as well.

Additionally, as remote work becomes a more sustainable option for many, the coast is a very attractive place to call home. Many workers who had never worked remotely relocated to their second homes when schools were closed during the coronavirus pandemic and discovered that they could work just as productively from their "vacation homes."

"Historically, people thought of the coastal areas of North Carolina as a place to vacation or to retire — now the demographic is rapidly shifting," Kirkman said. "We're continuing to be a popular place for both tourists and retirees, but increasingly we're also seeing professionals and families moving to Carteret County who are still very active in their work lives and who have figured out a way to be able to live in this beautiful place and work remotely either out of their home or at a coworking facility."

Kirkman added, "We know that growth is coming, and we value the contributions of people who choose to move to the Crystal Coast."

This article was written for our sponsor, Crystal Coast Economic Development Foundation.


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