CARTERET COUNTY — Though the novel coronavirus pandemic has dealt a blow to the tourism industry worldwide, local officials are hopeful the Crystal Coast can still pull off a successful summer tourism season.
“We’re looking forward to summer, I think everybody is,” Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Jim Browder told the News-Times recently.
Occupancy tax collections for the month of March were down 51% compared to March 2019, which Mr. Browder said was “expected” given the circumstances. He expects April’s figures to be “a bit worse than that.”
But May could be a turning point for tourism as travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders gradually ease. Carteret County recently lifted a ban on the short-term rental of hotel and motel rooms, vacation rentals and condominiums, campsites and other temporary lodgings. Mr. Browder said since then, the TDA’s lodging partners report bookings are beginning to pick back up.
“The good news is they’re getting a lot of calls,” he said of the several hotel managers he’s spoken to. “I heard from one the calls are 5 to 1, but instead of being in favor of cancellations, they’re actually bookings, so they’re starting to see an uptick in reservations again.”
Alyce Kelly, a sales manager at the Beaufort Hotel, said during a TDA Board of Directors meeting Tuesday the hotel is trying to strike a balance between welcoming back visitors and staying sensitive to the fact many county businesses are still closed. She said the hotel took a number of rooms out of service to prevent too many visitors descending on Carteret County while it’s still working toward reopening.
“We opened the doors, and the flood gates came in,” she said.
The TDA is trying to strike a similar balance in its advertising messages. In mid-March, the authority halted all planned broadcast and digital advertising campaigns, but ads will resume next week. Mr. Browder said, for now, the message is not necessarily “we’re open,” like after a hurricane, but it’s “welcome back.”
“Obviously, we are saying we’re open, but the emphasis is more of a ‘welcome back’ because we do understand that we have a lot of small business owners who are not yet operating, but are in that process of operating and opening back up,” he said. “So, we’re trying to be very supportive of those who have opened, but at the same time, we want to be fair with our communications.”
Trace Cooper, TDA board chairman and mayor of Atlantic Beach, said it’s also important the ads have an appropriate tone to not appear insensitive to the ongoing health, safety and financial struggles many people face.
“We need to figure out how hard we need to push it,” he said. “…The message needs to be measured but hopeful.”
Mr. Browder said beginning in July, the TDA will likely shift back to its originally planned advertising campaigns.
Despite the challenges, Mr. Browder thinks the summer will be a good one for Carteret County. He said industry trends indicate travelers want to visit more remote destinations where they can spread out and enjoy nature rather than cities with dense populations, and Carteret County fits the bill.
“Those who can travel are looking for non-city destinations, they’re looking at national and state parks, they’re looking at beach destinations,” he said. “Specifically, they’re looking for drive destinations, a lot do not want to fly.
“It kind of caters to our environment here, so that’s positive in terms of helping us rebound, but it’s still going to be a gradual return,” he continued. “The gates are not getting kicked wide open.”
Despite being optimistic, Mr. Browder acknowledges this summer probably won’t break any visitor records for Carteret County, and he said he expects growth to be gradual.
“It’s going to take a long time before things are really back to normal,” he said, “whatever normal looks like after all of this.”
Contact Elise Clouser at firstname.lastname@example.org; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.