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NC tourism going gangbusters, with state among top US destinations

RALEIGH — The North Carolina tourism economy reached its highest level ever in 2023, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday, with travelers spending more than $35.6 billion on trips to and within the state.

That’s up almost 7% from the previous record in 2022, according to the governor’s office. The state also rose to fifth in the nation for domestic visitation, behind California, Florida, Texas and New York.

Direct tourism employment in the state increased almost 5% to 227,200 jobs in 2023, and direct tourism payroll increased to $9.3 billion, the governor’s office said.

The preliminary findings come from research commissioned by Visit North Carolina, part of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. But tourism organizations in three regions of the state that talked with Carolina Public Press for this article also described successful efforts to draw in more tourists in each part of the state.

Inflation is part of what made 2023 a record year, as spending in general has increased, said Wit Tuttell, executive director of Visit North Carolina. But the agency also was able to target off-season advertising, such as marketing ski areas, with money from the legislature, he said.

“North Carolina is still a very seasonal tourism destination and so the more we can spread that out, that brings those dollars to areas in times where they need it more,” he said.

International traveler spending in the state also rose almost 10% from the previous year, to $997 million in 2023, the governor’s office said.

North Carolina isn’t as popular for international visitors as other areas of the U.S., Tuttell said. But those tend to be valuable visitors, as they often stay longer and spend more, he said.

The state works with other states in the South to jointly advertise, he said, because typical international visitors travel throughout the region.

It’s also better for Southern states not to go after a first-time international visitor, who will likely want to see California or New York, he said. Instead, the region targets veteran travelers who want the Southern experience, he said.

Visit North Carolina also tries to prevent over-tourism by making sure visitors enhance an area instead of detracting from it, Tuttell said. Part of that involves targeting whom the state markets itself to, he said, such as the Outdoor NC program, which emphasizes protecting resources and sustainability.

Ahead of Memorial Day weekend, tourism organizations across the state are preparing for visitors. Those in Raleigh, Wilmington and Western N.C. talked to CPP about the weekend ahead and tourism in their areas.

Raleigh gateway for NC tourists

Raleigh and the Wake County area have strong leisure visitation even apart from holidays, said Dennis Edwards, president and CEO of Visit Raleigh. That will continue this weekend with events such as the NCAA women’s lacrosse championship and the Japanese animation and cultural convention Animazement, he said.

The area is accustomed to large events, he said, and the agency alerts hotels and restaurants beforehand of when peak times might be.

In terms of attracting international versus domestic visitors, Edwards said the agency promotes the entire state to international visitors, with Raleigh acting as a gateway.

For domestic visitors, the focus is on the local area, he said.

Wilmington tourism

The Wilmington area is ready for the expected crowds of Memorial Day weekend, said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority.

Lifeguards start working daily and local businesses usually increase seasonal staff, according to Connie Nelson, communications and public relations director for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is the business name of the New Hanover tourism authority.

Each of the past couple years have been record-breaking in tourism expenditures and room occupancy tax collections in the county, Hufham said. The growth is just now leveling off after jumping post-pandemic lockdown, she said.

Most of the area’s visitors come from within North Carolina, Hufham said, but they also see large numbers from Northeastern states such as Pennsylvania and New York.

NC mountain tourism

In Asheville, restaurant reservations have begun to fill up, recent dance performances sold out and more tubers are going down the French Broad River, said Dodie Stephens, vice president of marketing at Explore Asheville.

Most Asheville visitors come from areas within a day’s drive, Stephens said, so the agency markets primarily to those people. Travelers who fly in tend to stay longer and move around the community more, she said, so the agency works with Asheville Airport to encourage those visitors.

Flights from Florida into Asheville are increasing, said Craig Distl, a public relations representative for Visit Hendersonville. The agency targets those visitors year-round as the N.C. mountains are some of the closest to Floridians, he said.

Memorial Day weekend means crowds of around 200,000 for Hendersonville, Distl said, as the town holds the Garden Jubilee festival downtown.

Anna Harden

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