Recent reports from the Carteret County Tourism Development Authority indicating a record year for occupancy tax receipts for the county stand in stark contrast with events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic which has left many tourist communities across the state and nation in dire financial straits. One of the key elements contributing to this year’s economic success for tourism has been and continues to be its willingness to maintain a strong and vibrant beachfront.
Granted the county’s tourism has benefited from thousands of visitors suffering from “cabin fever” after months of quarantine and sequestration required by local, state and national political leaders. But even those visitors would not have ventured to our county if there was nothing to enjoy. Tourists don’t visit a community on a whim, they’re always looking for something specific such as entertainment or natural resources such as beaches, mountain adventures or historic sites.
Carteret County is blessed with an abundance of outdoor opportunities such as a stable beachfront, easy access to inland and ocean waters and quality facilities designed with tourists in mind. While these resources are naturally occurring, they still need maintenance and investment which the county and beach communities wisely continue to provide.
The events leading up to our tourist season did not portend any positive results for the year considering travel restriction and growing fears of the pandemic. Occupancy tax figures for the month of April showed collections were down 90% compared to the previous year’s numbers. But by mid-May, hotel, motel and condo bookings began to rebound, indicating that visitors were determined to break free as travel restrictions loosened.
By June, occupancy figures provided by the county’s Tourism Development Authority showed a 17% increase over the previous year, and by July occupancy tax collections were at an all-time high totaling $2.41 million, approximately 9% higher than July 2019.
Fortunately for the county’s tourism industry and all residents, the structure is in place to maintain the very cause of the county’s robust tourist economy- beach nourishment and waterway management. Under the legislative structure allowing for the county’s creation of a room tax, the TDA shares the revenues 50/50 with the county’s Shore Protection Office. That portion of the room tax revenues dedicated to the TDA are used for promotions and advertising, while the remaining 50% goes to beach nourishment and waterway projects directed by the Carteret County Beach Commission.
Greg “Rudi” Rudolph, presenting a “State of the Beach” report to the county’s beach commission, noted that Bogue Banks beaches are in very good condition, if not the best and most stable in recent history. He attributed this success to the millions of dollars invested in ongoing beach nourishment efforts and recent storms that have provided sand accretion rather than beach erosion.
According to Mr. Rudolph’s report, the county has spent more than $60 million in occupancy tax funds and town funds on beach nourishment since 2001. State and federal funds have also been used to enhance the county’s contributions. There is one note of concern that Mr. Rudolph has mentioned in previous reports and that is the probability that federal support will possibly diminish if not dry up completely. If that happens more responsibility will fall to the state which has established a special fund for beach communities and the county. But at least the county has a good start in its efforts to maintain the key engine for the tourism industry.
As county officials begin planning for the coming fiscal year, they should review the success of the past year and commit to maintaining an aggressive approach to beach nourishment programs. Because of our past efforts, Carteret County’s economy has weathered a difficult period which, based on current experiences, may continue well into next year. By maintaining our beaches for the benefit of tourists and local residents, the county’s future stands a better chance of maintaining what is the county’s primary economic engine - tourism.