A tale of two summers: Tourism data shows beaches boomed while inland areas suffered

How the pandemic has impacted tourism in the region

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Tourism data shows a tale of two very different summers in New Hanover County.

Despite the pandemic, beach areas boomed with higher tourism numbers than in the summer of 2019 while inland areas suffered great losses.

During the state-wide shutdown this spring, tourism all but dropped off as the economy came to a screeching halt and industry experts began preparing for major revenue losses that would have led to tax losses and ultimately to a lack of government funding at every level.

“We really thought that we would be anywhere from 20% to 30% down over last year,” said Kim Hufham of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority. “Then we got these numbers in and of course right now we’re running through September, county-wide, almost 6-percent over our previous year.”

May and June numbers were on par or over numbers for 2019 at Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville beaches, and that continued into fiscal year 2020/2021 which began in July. For the first quarter, the county is up 5.9% overall compared with 2019 but that growth is largely due to a combination of spikes in beach tourism in July and August, and a sharp decline in the 2019 numbers for September due to Hurricane Dorian.

As it relates to jobs, Hufham believes tourism led to stability for the beach areas.

“With our beach hotels and our beach rentals, they’ve done very well for the summer. I’m sure they have...staff-wise...have kept the majority of their staffing,” she said.

During the month of July, Wrightsville Beach saw an increase of over 12%. Carolina and Kure beaches were up over 18% and the jumps were even greater in August when Carolina Beach saw a 27% increase and Kure Beach saw 30% more visitors over 2019.

However, inland areas did not reap the same benefits.

The convention center district, which includes large venues and hotels typically rented for conferences and other large group events, have seen a sharp decline both in New Hanover County and all over the state.

What’s known as the convention center district in New Hanover County was down almost 49% in July.

“The hotels in Wilmington, many of them still are not back with full staffing; they still have had layoffs and furloughs and those types of things. The jobs have been very heavily affected and continue to be and will be until we’re back up at the capacity that we usually run county-wide, not just at the beach areas,” Hufham said.

Moving forward, the winter months are expected to bring the typical decline in beach tourism and there are concerns about how restaurants and other businesses will fare with capacity restrictions still in place and the practicality of outdoor dining diminishing as the weather gets colder.

“We’re just hoping that we can kind of survive and stay afloat during the winter months and that when spring gets here, things will be in place with the virus as far as vaccines and people wanting to travel again and that we’ll see the numbers that we’ve seen this summer maybe continue on into the spring and summer of next year,” Hufham said.

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