OBX Growing Pains

 In Community, OBX Community

Dare County’s Long-Range Tourism Management Plan

Busier is better when it comes to business, right? Well, the Outer Banks is unique in many ways, and one of its limitations lies in the ability to accommodate everything that is demanded of its shifting sands. Not surprisingly, it is difficult for visitors to understand why restaurants would have short schedules, or hotels would not fill all their rooms, when the demand is high, and money is in hand. Around town with long waits and crawling traffic, local businesses struggle to keep the “service with a smile” reputation up with their often-understaffed operations. Both visitors and the community have become dissatisfied with the state of affairs, and the Outer Banks has found itself at an inflection point.

Tourism has long been a key source of income for the Outer Banks, but it’s part of the economy and its effect on the community has changed dramatically in recent years. Dare County’s Tourism Board “determined that a Long-Range Tourism Management Plan was necessary to guide the responsible growth of tourism and optimize the benefits it provided to the local community while mitigating negative impacts.” The year-to-year impact became exponential between 2019 and 2022, with paid accommodation increasing 57.2%, with the same 2022 revenue being 75.8% higher than 2011, according to the Executive Summary in the Plan.

To study how to reach these goals, two consulting firms (MMGY NextFactor and Tourism Economics) were hired by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. They presented a “forecast analysis with three potential scenarios.” They define the Aggressive Growth scenario as a successful pursuit of the Plan with stronger shoulder seasons, more year-round operations and greater visitor spending than Moderate Growth. The Moderate strategy is similar in the implementation of the community aspects of the Plan but does not pursue the same increased visitor spending. The Retrench scenario explores failed management of strains due to visitor growth, which results in less revenue, a loss of jobs, and some business closures.

To reach these conclusions Tourism Economics (TE) analyzed the economic and tourism data of Dare County, the surrounding counties of Carteret, Currituck and Hyde, as well as North Carolina in general. This 65-page Plan for 2023-2033 was created using input from the community via town halls and surveys (as you may recall taking) as well as interviews with what the Board calls, “community leaders, tourism-related stakeholders” and residents. Local leaders ranging from County Managers to Restaurant Association representatives took part. The full list of participants in the Task Force and Project Team is available on page 6 in the report. In the included letter from The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau they state, “It has become necessary for our work to evolve beyond stimulating such economic impact by visitors to ensure that residents also have a strong quality of life and experience here as well.” Though this plan was presented in the spring of this year, the strategies outlined are only beginning to be introduced.

With this increase in visitation came an increased need for services, and therefore the people needed to do those services found their talents in higher demand. The tight labor market put pressure on businesses to pay higher wages, but still found themselves short on staff. TE found through the Bureau of Labor Statistics that between 2017-2021 “average annual pay in sectors such as restaurants and accommodations has increased 30% or more and compared to the 25.7% increase in all industries,” reportedly a 71% increase over 2010 even after adjusting for inflation.

Unfortunately, despite the increase in wages, high housing costs have made it extremely difficult for even a well-paid worker in the hospitality industry to afford a home to rent or buy; hence the still understaffed but busy and well-paying locations up and down the beach. According the TE’s findings from the U.S. Federal Housing Finance Agency and the Census Bureau, Dare County home prices increased 54.1% between 2019 and 2022. Compared to 43.2% of North Carolina, 47.8% of Dare County households who rent pay more than 30% of their income, compared to 25.1% of local homeowners. Home building has increased slowly (3.6%) since it’s low in 2010, but still is at a slower pace than North Carolina (10.6). According to TE’s study of Census Bureau data “fewer houses are being classified as second or vacation homes over time,” but much of this inventory is out of reach for most of the hospitality sector.

Telling of the negative financial impact of rapidly increased visitation, however, is that “the pace of growth in accommodation revenue is slowing.” With varying numbers from campgrounds showing the most negative growth at -37.8% to the still strong 9.1% positive growth for Property Management (including Airbnb and Vrbo which as a subset grew 10.4%). The overall accommodation revenue slowed from an average of 33.8% in 2021 to 5.6% in 2022. These, though slowing numbers, still outpaced the state. It shows the Tourism Board, however, that it is time to develop a long-range plan.

Using the forecast scenarios mentioned earlier, Tourism Economics and MMGY NextFactor extrapolated future revenue comparisons. With aggressive growth and moderate growth spending in 2033 reaches 2.3 and 2.1 billion respectively, retrenchment yields 1.9. Aggressive Growth increases employment to 12,875 jobs, 6.5% over moderate growth with retrenchment leading to a decline from 2022’s 12,282 to just under 11k jobs. Similar distributions exist for the shoulder season with 26.5, 22.5 and 18.9 being the estimated percentage of the accommodation revenue. Lee Nettles, was paraphrased in a WOBX article about the Plan by Sam Walker III as saying the Moderate Growth model was the “more reasonable, realistic approach for the Outer Banks.”

Each strategic goal is accompanied by a series of steps for achieving the objectives. Too numerous to outline in this article, they include but aren’t limited to: resident advisory panels, visitor’s pledge, engage “volun-tourism,” collaboration with environmental organizations, invest in roads, sidewalks and clean mobility, undertake a density study, improve accessibility, advocate for shoreline vitality and preservation, collaborate with Dare County for sustainable housing, advocate for a balance in short and long term rentals and support public transportation and other mobility initiatives.

In the “Imagine It’s the Year 2033” section, tourism is described as “more balanced” as the implementation of the Plan “protects our core values and sustains the environment, culture, and community for the foreseeable future.” It speaks of a healthier shoreline, less traffic, transit options, more sidewalks and trails, better housing, increased accessibility, and a visitor community that is, “focused on leaving OBX in better condition than they found it.”

The Plan concluded with advising that some steps may be “taken that impede visitor activity, or slow potential growth,” but that this is to reach “longer term success.” In a highlighted section they write, “it is incumbent on the Visitors Bureau to balance the needs of businesses who want continued growth in the number of visitors with the desires of the community at large. They must ensure the pace of growth does not impede quality of life, overtax the existing infrastructure, or irreparably damage fragile ecosystems while still advancing and achieving their mission.”

Seems like the community has spoken, they have the numbers to prove it, and a plan to move forward. How successful that move will be depends on each person involved with supporting these goals. One initial step taken has been the recent hiring of Jeff Schwartzenberg as Community Engagement Manager. He’s tasked with incorporating goals of the Visitors Bureau’s LRTMP with the local community.

You can find the complete Long-Range Tourism Management Plan and current endeavors at Outer Banks Visitors Bureau online at www.outerbanks.org. The next Tourism Summit is November 2nd, 2023.

Author: CoastalLife

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Outer Surf’s Girl Grom Camp. Photo by Ricardo Cabrera.alligator river bridge outer banks nc