Coastal businesses eager for tourists to return

"The key is getting the word out," said Celina Moose, the manager of a kite store in in Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks. "The beaches are open. The restaurants are open. We need tourists to come back."

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KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. — Business owners on accessible portions of the North Carolina coast said Monday they hope damage from Hurricane Irene doesn't scare away visitors during the upcoming Labor Day weekend.

"The key is getting the word out," said Celina Moose, the manager of a kite store in in Kitty Hawk. "The beaches are open. The restaurants are open. We need tourists to come back."

A mandatory evacuation for Dare County residents and visitors in advance of Irene cost local businesses four days of sales between Thursday and Sunday. By Tuesday, visitors were allowed back onto all of the Outer Banks, except for Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, and businesses were eager to welcome visitors back.

"We love our locals, but everybody here depends on tourism," said Gunnell Rupert, owner of Pizzazz Pizza in Kill Devil Hills. "Any time we lose time – any kind of time in the summer – it hurts."

At nearby Stack 'em High, owner Steve Kiousis said he served 27 breakfasts last Friday, compared with about 900 on a normal Friday morning in August. He said he hopes tourists get the message that part of the Outer Banks is open for business after Irene.

"It's Labor Day weekend coming up, and everybody's going, 'OK, we need that last hurrah before the fall and winter season.' Hopefully, we can salvage it," Kiousis said.

Judy Packer, a 44-year-old accountant and mother of three from New York City, happily came to Nags Head for vacation this week. The beach house she rented months ago came through the hurricane with barely a scratch.

"I just want to spend the next week unwinding," she said. "I'm just glad there wasn't much storm damage. It's good to be here."

The beachfront Comfort Inn in Nags Head had its 105 rooms booked solid the week before the storm, said manager Kelly Smith. But over the past 24 hours, they received 150 cancellations for the coming week. She estimated that the hotel will only be about two-thirds full over Labor Day weekend, when rooms go for $160 a night.

Many of the cancellations are coming from northern states also affected by Irene.

"They're saying they're cancelling because their power is off and don't know when it's coming on," Smith said. "Or they're saying their power is off, they had some damage and they don't know if they can afford the vacation anymore."

Some resorts away from the ocean benefited from Irene. The Smoky Mountain resort city of Gatlinburg, Tenn., reported an influx of tourists last weekend as the hurricane forecasts were issued. Some were coastal residents trying to escape the weather, said city spokesman Jim Davis.

Outer Banks tourism officials said they expect about 250,000 visitors over the holiday weekend.

"Everybody's safe, and we're ready to roll," Rupert said, making a pitch for tourists to plan fall vacations at the beach as well.

"It's a great place to come in September," he said. "The water's still warm, and there's not as many people here (as in the summer)."


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