More than 100 residents of the Outer Banks turned out for a pair of forums hosted by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau as part of the development of a long range plan for the region’s visitor economy.
Statistics show tourism spending in Dare County topped $1.83 billion in 2021, the fourth highest in North Carolina, with one of every three jobs either part of or supported by the visitor economy.
The first session was held Tuesday morning at the Fessenden Center in Buxton, with an evening session at the Ramada Plaza Oceanfront in Kill Devil Hills.
Attendees at the two gatherings represented the full spectrum of those who call Dare County home, from retirees that just moved to the region, to those who can trace back their Outer Banks lineage for generations, along with business, political and education leaders.
The Visitors Bureau and Dare County Tourism Board have been working collaboratively with MMGY NextFactor, a consulting firm specializing in travel and tourism, to develop a Long Range Tourism Management Plan to guide future tourism-related growth and development in Dare County.
MMGY NextFactor, with oversight from a 19-member task force established to support the project, has been conducting interviews and focus groups with local civic, business and government leaders, and industry stakeholders in various sectors.
“One of the things we want to tackle is tourism in the future,” said tourism board Chairman Tim Cafferty at the beginning of the evening session in Kill Devil Hills. “What does it look like 20 years from now?”
“I think that a lot of us are here tonight because we recognize how special the Outer Banks is,” said visitors bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles. “And we don’t want to lose that.”
“I have a note stuck on a wall in my office, and it says ‘Tourism Destroys Tourism,” Nettles added. “So part of why we’re here tonight, part of why we we have embarked on this process of tourism management plan is just in the recognition that tourism creates both positive and negative impacts.”
Facilitating the discussions during the roughly 90 minute forum were MMGY NextFactor Senior Vice President of Destination Stewardship Cassandra McAuley and Executive Consultant Shelly Green.
McAuley said an online survey of Outer Banks residents conducted before the holidays had 4,538 respondents, which she called “phenomenal”.
“(This) really demonstrates how deeply you care and want to be engaged in the process,” McAuley said. She added that when the City of Los Angeles went through the same process, they had only around 1,000 residents respond.
The survey also generated 99 pages of written comments, with housing, workforce and transportation the top three most discussed items.
Green presented some detailed results of the survey, with 62 percent of respondents saying they were full-time residents and 37 percent property owners that do not live on the Outer Banks year round. Three out of four participants in the survey were 50 years or older.
The vast majority ranked living on the Outer Banks as highly positive, that tourism is one of the most important components of the local economy while at the same time is too dependent on it, and that the tourism industry should do more to encourage locals to “explore their own backyard.
Also ranking important in the survey was management of residential growth, but local government rated slightly negative when it came to managing the pace of tourism development.
The majority of survey’s participants said “the positive benefits of tourism to my area outweigh the negative,” according to Green.
McAuley and Green then put to the floor a series of questions to attendees to openly discuss in small groups seated around tables throughout the Ramada ballroom.
“What makes the Outer Banks a great place to live, work and visit?”
Responses from the groups included the sense of community, looking out for each other, the beach, the safe environment overall, the education system, and lack of high rise hotels.
“What would make the Outer Banks an even better place to live, work and visit?”
The groups said there needs to be improvements to transportation and roads, infrastructure including wastewater, more access to healthcare, more housing options, better diversity of the population, a wider range of job options and improvements in access to preschool and childcare.
“One of the things that I really appreciate about all of the comments here is that you’re starting to get to solutions and you’re starting to think about that,” McAuley said.
During the small group discussions, many were giving their thoughts on how to solve the individual problems brought up, which fed in to the next question.
“What can be created that doesn’t yet exist that would make a better experience for residents?”
Solutions mentioned included collaborative governance among the towns and county, long range planning for environmental sustainability, a better plan for hurricane evacuations, finding a way to possibly cap the number of “event homes” and even capping the overall number of visitors coming to the Outer Banks, turnover day variations, and even better communication to visitors about “why we do things the way we do here”.
McAuley and Green noted that many of the answers given by the small groups echoed the thoughts expressed in Buxton.
“One comment that we heard this week is the greatest thing that we have going for us in the Outer Banks is not what we don’t have. It’s what we do have,” McAuley said.
In closing comments from the audience, one table said their group felt that the Outer Banks should be “creating happier residents…creating the right balance of fun without going too far.
And many agreed with another comment that noted the plan needs to be a living document.
“Keep in mind that a 5-10-20 year plan is great. But it’s a rolling plan. And the point is, fundamentally, you do a 20 year plan, at least every five years, if not more, you’re better evaluate it and mark your progress.”
The resident meetings are part of the third of five phases of the plan’s development, according to McAuley.
She said information gathering is the longest part of the process, and that phases four and five will be completed over the next several weeks and they expect to present the final report later this spring.
“We’re a small community, and every one in three people is employed in travel and tourism-related jobs in Dare County, so there’s always been a connection, but I think that the Tourism Board wants to be more intentional about hearing from the community, and making sure that the things we do with tourism in the long-term include the community’s input,” Nettles told the Island Free Press following the morning session.
“The cool thing about the Outer Banks is that we’re a small enough community that if we can figure out what we need to do, we can actually come together and [accomplish it.] We have millions of guests, but we’re 37,000 people spread out across 100 miles, and that’s one of our greatest strengths.”
Nettles noted that the results from the community will be helpful for the Tourism Board, but it will also spiderweb to the other stakeholders and leaders in the county, hopefully leading to new initiatives and changes across the board.
“It should help to inform the investments of the Tourism Board, certainly, but hopefully, [it will help] the coordination of the different towns and the county as well. Because I think if we’re talking about things like housing and infrastructure, that’s going to take all of us paddling in the same direction,” said Nettles. “That’s part of it, but I also think part of this process is just closing the gap between residents and the tourism industry, and hopefully getting us more in the same place so that tourism doesn’t feel like it’s something that’s happening to you, it’s happening with you.”
“We have like a special opportunity right now to reshape how we go about doing tourism business, and hopefully, direct it a little bit more positively.”
Details about the development of the plan, including results of the various surveys, can be found at https://www.outerbanks.org/partners/long-range-tourism-management-plan/.