CARTERET COUNTY — The long, hot days of summer are fast approaching, and with post-pandemic travel picking up nationwide, tourism officials in Carteret County predict the upcoming Memorial Day weekend could potentially break visitation records for the Crystal Coast.
“We were very fortunate to have a strong Memorial Day last year despite COVID and the restrictions that were in place,” Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Jim Browder told the News-Times Thursday. “Now that things are opening back up, I have no doubt this will be the strongest Memorial Day weekend on record for the Crystal Coast.”
Despite the pandemic, Carteret County saw record-breaking tourism all summer and even into the fall and winter of 2020, and Mr. Browder expects that to continue this year. He said bookings with vacation rental companies are beginning to fill up for the summer and even into the fall. Some have even started raising rates, indicating to Mr. Browder rooms are filling up fast.
That’s true at Bluewater Real Estate, a vacation rental company based in Emerald Isle, where general manager Amanda Gray said rooms for the Memorial Day weekend are almost fully booked.
“We typically see a lot of nightly stays, but this year most of our bookings are for the full week,” she said in an email. “I think the number of bookings shows people aren't concerned for Covid. People are ready to get back out.”
Mr. Browder sees several factors converging to make this Memorial Day, a holiday many consider the unofficial start of summer, one for the record books. He said while the pandemic caused tourism to lag in many big cities and other urban areas last year, it actually increased demand for many beach and other outdoor destinations. That, combined with the easing of coronavirus restrictions and increased vaccine availability, lead Mr. Browder to predict 5% growth in tourism for the 2021 season over the previous year.
“I think with the pent up demand, it’s going to be phenomenal,” he said. “…I think it’s going to be as close to normal as we’ve seen in a while.”
The predictions follow a larger, national travel trend. AAA estimates more than 37 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home during the upcoming long holiday weekend, around a 60% increase from last year when only 23 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day. The company said last year’s figures were lowest number on record since AAA began tracking holiday travel in 2000.
Despite the strong increase in travel demand over last Memorial Day, which fell during the early phase of the pandemic, AAA said the prediction still represents a 13% decline in the number of travelers seen in 2019, or nearly 6 million fewer people traveling.
“As more people get the COVID-19 vaccine and consumer confidence grows, Americans are demonstrating a strong desire to travel this Memorial Day,” senior vice president of AAA Travel Paula Twidale said. “This pent-up demand will result in a significant increase in Memorial Day travel, which is a strong indicator for summer, though we must all remember to continue taking important safety precautions.”
To account for the projected increase in travel across the state this weekend, the N.C. Department of Transportation announced it is pausing construction on many major projects along interstates and other key routes beginning Friday morning through Tuesday evening.
The department said it is pausing construction on projects that could affect travelers because of lane closures, but there are some exceptions where conditions do not allow for the opening of all lanes. That includes projects where highways are being rebuilt or widened or where a new bridge may be going into place. Also, construction work that doesn’t involve lane closures can continue over the extended weekend.
As always, NCDOT encourages motorists to pay extra attention and use caution when traveling this weekend. The department urges travelers to make sure all vehicle occupants are wearing seat belts, don’t drive impaired and obey speed limit restrictions, even in work zones when no construction activity is taking place.
State Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies have already started their Memorial Day weekend Click It or Ticket campaign in all 100 counties. There will be checkpoints at various locations around the state through Sunday, June 6 looking for vehicle occupants without seat belts, impaired drivers and other violations.
NCDOT offers the following tips for a safer holiday weekend:
· If you are leaving the state, plan ahead by checking on possible face covering rules or other public health restrictions that may be in place on the way to your destination.
· Leave early to get a head start and remember Friday and Monday will likely have the most traffic on the roads.
· Avoid distracted driving and pay extra attention to the road and vehicles that are nearby.
· Check ahead for any potential weather issues for the route you are using.
Travel updates on construction projects and incidents such as crashes that can affect a trip can be found at drivenc.org.
Reporter's note: This article was updated at 2:18 p.m. Friday, May 28, 2021, with additional comments from lodging officials.
Contact Elise Clouser at firstname.lastname@example.org; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.