Continuing record breaking tourism revenue reports from the county’s finance department are good news for the local economy but simultaneously should be a concern for municipal and county policy leaders. If the growth continues anywhere near the rapid pace seen over the past two years, the county may find itself quickly overwhelmed, resulting in dissatisfied visitors and damaging negative publicity.
In 2019, collections from the 6% occupancy tax amounted to little more than $7.5 million. The following year, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county’s occupancy tax receipts exceeded $9 million- a 20% increase.
A 20% increase is significant considering that travel and visitations were severely limited as a result of mandated quarantines and the subsequent fears associated with the virus, which also delayed the start of the tourist season nationally. While other tourist related industries and regions were negatively impacted by the pandemic, Carteret County and the Crystal Coast thrived and based on the revenue numbers coming in, this trend is continuing and possibly accelerating.
In Wednesday’s issue of the News-Times, reporter Cheryl Burke detailed the success of the Fourth of July weekend with a brief comment from Curtis Edwards, who was taking advantage of the weekend celebration and combining it with a father and son fishing trip at the Oceanana Fishing Pier. “We couldn’t find a hotel room so we ended up sleeping in the truck,” Mr. Edwards stated.
Motel rooms were not the only items in short supply during the weekend. Oceanana pier and restaurant manager, Michelle Burkette, told Ms. Burke that the weekend’s success was so significant that the pier and restaurant parking lot remained full all day, resulting in visitors being turned away.
Jim Browder, Executive Director the Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority, noted in the Wednesday news story that he suspects, once all the numbers are collected, that this year’s Independence Day weekend will break last year’s record setting numbers. Based on May’s revenue numbers released by the county’s finance department, there is every reason that Mr. Browder’s prediction is correct.
Reporter Brad Rich reports in today’s paper that Carteret County Shore Protection Officer Greg Rudolph reported to his board, which receives 50% of the county’s tourism revenues for beach nourishment projects, that room tax revenues for May eclipsed May 2020 revenue numbers by 97 percent. Mr. Rudolph went on to report that the current fiscal year- July 1 through June 30- is on pace to possibly double the collections for fiscal year 2019-20, which was also a record setting year.
Considering the challenges the county and tourism industry have experienced over the past 20 years with hurricanes, a major recession and most recently the pandemic, the continued and growing success of the county’s tourism is very good news. But it also indicates a need for aggressive preparation for the future.
Mr. Edward’s experience of not being able to find a motel room, while possibly the failure on his part to plan ahead for the biggest weekend of the year, is an indication that the county is near saturation.
Granted, there will be shortages at peak moments such as a major holiday event like the Fourth of July. But each time there are reports of shortages in either services or supplies, it is a good time to take an inventory to determine if these shortages are either a precursor or indication of a bigger problem.
Mr. Rudolph opined in his board presentation about room tax revenues that he doesn’t expect to see 60% to 100% month-over-month growth in perpetuity. That is good news because the county would quickly reach saturation and begin to decline as a result.
But that prediction should not cause any comfort. Considering the growth of the past two years, even a more stable increase of five to ten percent will stress existing services and facilities that are at, or near, their maximum capacity. Compounding this problem is the completion in the next ten years of I-42 which terminate in Carteret County. The easy access that this interstate will provide for travelers from the Raleigh/Research Triangle market, which is also experiencing rapid growth, portends major challenges for the county in the years ahead.
Tourism is a major economic engine for the county, the region and the state. The empirical evidence coming in from room taxes revenues alone indicates that not only is this an important industry to nurture, it is one that requires wise and immediate attention to assure we are prepared for the oncoming wave of visitors arriving much too soon.