For one of her latest trips, avid traveler and blogger Alyssa Nelson waited for warm, yet comfortable weather in late April to head to Wilmington for a weekend visit.
Nelson, who lives in Charlotte and is the content creator for her website waywardblog.com, was excited to finally start on her 2020 New Year’s resolution to visit one new destination a month, an endeavor that went on pause during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Wilmington was high on my list of places to visit in North Carolina, and many of my new friends in the area recommended it as the perfect weekend getaway spot,” she said.
While her trip to the coast is similar to one that many inland North Carolinians take, hers differed due to portions of the visit being hosted by the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), which works with influencers to promote the region to travelers.
Nelson left Wilmington with an even bigger list of must-dos for when she comes back. “I’m itching to return,” she said.
Nelson’s excitement to start traveling again after a year of coronavirus travel restrictions echoes trends that the tourism industry has been seeing in the country and region, with the local coastal destination expecting a bounce back in tourism and continued strong activity this year.
Nationwide, the World Travel & Tourism Council projects that travel and tourism will reach pre-pandemic levels this year.
Locally, room occupancy tax (ROT) collections garnered from overnight rental stays have been on the rebound, said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority, which does business as the CVB.
While 2021 figures on local tourism expenditures are not yet available, Hufham said she expects them to be once again record breaking.
“We’re really pleased to announce that in FY 2021, which is current through February, we are up 36.7% over last year. And last year was a record-breaking year in occupancy tax collections topping over $17.5 million,” Hufham said.
In light of upward trends, regional economist Adam Jones said the area could expect even more of a tourism increase this summer.
“The rush is coming,” said Jones, associate professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business.
Room occupancy tax collections in the county are ahead of 2021 figures so far, with ROT levels higher during the pandemic years than in 2017 and 2018.
Industry experts suggest the surge in travel many locations are experiencing was brought on as a side effect of the pandemic.
“The pandemic changed the way visitors travel in that they shifted to destinations that offered outdoor activities, beach, riverwalk, parks, gardens, as well as a substantial inventory of vacation rentals,” Hufham said. “Once restrictions were lifted, there was a lot of pent-up demand, and people were traveling again, mostly domestic before vaccinations became available.”
This demand can be described by a new term that emerged known as revenge travel, the idea that people are traveling to make up for lost trips during the height of the pandemic.
In 2021, AirDNA, a provider of vacation rental research, and HomeToGo, a vacation rental search engine, created the “Revenge Travel” report that named Carolina Beach as one of the top-booked destinations in the country and Wilmington as one of 10 locations nationally with the best market for growth. The report found that Wilmington’s year-over-year bookings increased 62% from data gathered in April 2021 compared to that of pre-pandemic, April 2019. Data from 2020 was not used because of the impact the pandemic had on travel.
Contributing factors of revenge travel might include work-from-home policies that give people more flexibility to travel and more money in their pockets because of recent low unemployment rates and government stimulus programs that created disposable income for some.
“Consumption is strong, and it’s increasing still. And consumers are in a really strong position to continue to consume,” Jones said.
This is something that Angie Fanning, founder of Wilmington-based travel agency AwayBug Travel, has found with recent clients.
While the pandemic threw her for a loop with cancellations, travel demand really ramped up in January, she said.
“There’s definitely been a huge increase in new inquiries and people who want to travel. It kind of went from zero to a hundred overnight,” Fanning said.
One interesting trend she has noticed is people wanting to travel sooner than usual, with travelers planning for March trips in January as opposed to planning more in advance.
The biggest challenge Fanning has seen in the travel industry is shortages, from car rentals to workers.
“I have been telling people, the travel and tourism industry had to shrink down to basically nothing for a while and then sort of overnight, everything has ramped back up really quickly as far as the demand for travel,” she said. “But the industry just doesn’t have the ability to all of a sudden go back to the way it was in 2019, overnight. We shrunk in so many ways.”
One popular Wrightsville Beach destination for travelers is Blockade Runner Beach Resort, which has experienced staffing challenges. But the resort has dealt with that issue for years, said general manager Nicolas Montoya.
“As we expand our occupancy more consistently over the years, we have struggled with balancing year-round staff against summer staff,” he said. “Now our year-round core has expanded, which is good. The pool of folks in the service industry has indeed seemingly dried up. However, we have more young people entering the workforce. Young high-school-age students are applying and working at the resort.”
To deal with competition in hiring, the resort has adjusted pay scales, provided flexible working hours when able and considered training workers versus requiring previous experience, Montoya said.
“This all means that we need to be more focused on growing and training our staff. I have always thought of the Blockade Runner as a teaching resort,” he said. “It has not been truer than over the last two years.”
A trend Montoya (left) has observed is the widening of the shoulder seasons, with visits during the typical off-season increasing.
“During the last two years visitation has increased from March through November and with the warm winters also in December and January,” he said. “However, this has been a growing trend for us at the resort and the area in general. The expansion towards year-wide visitation has been growing for the last eight to 10 years.”
Blockade Runner is preparing for visitor numbers like those of summer 2018. “There are all kinds of factors that may affect travel, but we are hopeful that our accessibility, beauty and offerings will provide an option to more distant destinations,” Montoya said. “As one of the fastest-growing states in the country, the amount of people in North Carolina keeps on being our biggest pool.”
The CVB also expects a prosperous year.
“Barring any unforeseen economic circumstances or weather-related events that are beyond our control, we anticipate that ROT will continue to track ahead of 2021,” Hufham said. “While we do not have a crystal ball, based on recent trends and feedback from our travel partners, the immediate future of tourism looks very bright for New Hanover County.”
The CVB marketing team continues to work to attract visitors to the region including promoting it as a meeting and convention destination and transitioning its website, social media and promotions to summer activities for leisure travel. It’s also working with Avelo Airlines, a new airline at Wilmington International Airport, and a new sports marketing concept.
With the ups and downs that the tourism industry experienced in the past few years, one key takeaway is embracing what attracts people to the region in the first place.
“Tourism is vital to our region. It has been and will continue to be. We are a small county and area that packs a punch,” Montoya said. “Many of the things that we attribute to our quality of life are also the main reasons for why folks come to visit.”