NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - As New Hanover County slowly begins to return to normal following Hurricane Florence, businesses cannot help but notice something is still missing.
“A lot of downtown has bounced back," said Ellie Craig, director of sales and public relations for Front Street Brewery. "A lot of places are open for business and are viable and we are starting to see the community reincorporate themselves into the area but we’re not seeing that fall tourism we’re used to seeing. People from Raleigh, people from Charlotte, the weekend warriors.”
Officials in the tourism industry have been working to develop a plan to revive the tourism industry following Florence. They presented the plan Wednesday at a meeting hosted by the Wilmington & Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“I think the biggest part of what we’re going to be facing is perception," said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the New Hanover County Tourism Development program. “We know that we’re here. We know that our destination is actually in relatively good shape. We still have some areas that have not recovered fully but they will. The biggest message we’re trying to get through the campaign is come back. Not only come back to the area but that our area has made a comeback.”
The $490,000 campaign will work to bring tourists back to the county by marketing the area as a year-round destination. The tourism economy has taken a major hit from Hurricane Florence, and employs over 6,300 people county-wide. Hufham said without tourism the county would not have certain programs and facilities, like the beach renourishment program and convention center.
“Tourism is a huge economic driver to our area. When you look at the figures from 2017 over half a billion dollars was brought into our community by tourism expenditures," she said.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said the program will work to change how the country currently perceives Wilmington.
“Obviously the perception throughout the country is that Wilmington is under water, that it was flooded out. And we did have a lot of places west of here, north and south of here that were flooded and we were cut off literally from the outside world,” he said.
He said it is important to be proactive in reviving tourism across the area to aid business owners and the more than 6,000 people employed through the tourism industry.
However, leaders are cautious of taking on too much, too quickly. Many hotels and rental properties in the area are still being occupied by displaced community members. Saffo said they and the workers helping to rebuild the area will remain a priority.
“It’s a catch 22," Saffo said. "Obviously we have a lot of people in those hotels that were displaced because of the hurricane. We have a lot of people in those hotels that are helping us in the recovery effort. We do not want to kick those people out. This is the planning process we had to put together to go once the recovery is complete. Our number one priority as a community is to clean up the debris and get people back into their apartments and to their homes as quickly as possible. Working through the state, working with FEMA to be able to do that.”
Saffo said the plan is in place now in order to get visitors back into the area as soon as possible once recovery efforts are complete.
By promoting areas ready to host visitors and stories of recovery, the tourism development authority hopes to bring more visitors to the area, with an emphasis on spring 2019 travel.
Business owners like Craig hope the campaign will let travelers know Wilmington and surrounding areas are on the mend.
“We certainly have taken a hit. I think everyone has," Craig said. The national media definitely put us on display during the storm, gave the impression we were all under water after the storm, and the residual effects of that have certainly hurt us as a business.”
Craig believes locals who were impacted by the storm or had to evacuate simply don not have the disposable income they once had to spend on going out to eat or drink. That in addition to the lack of tourists has left them and many others hurting.
“I think it’s all about perception. People are seeing the cleanup and what is going into that cleanup and yes it may be a deterrent for the time being on a tourism level. If we can start reminding people about the wonderful things Wilmington has to offer this time of year and changing that imagery from the destruction and the damage and to more of the fun things going on,” Craig said.