‘One hundred percent through October’

By on September 18, 2020

OBX appears headed for record fall tourism

(File photo)

The summer season is merging into autumn on the Outer Banks. The weather is cooling and the days are shorter. But the roads are still filled with cars bearing out of state license plates — and rental homes and hotels are at 100 percent occupancy.

“I think we’re going be one hundred percent through October. I don’t recall seeing that ever. It’s just amazing,” said Beth Midgett, Reservations Manager for Midgett Realty.

Tim Cafferty, President of Outer Banks Blue Realty, indicated that the summer had been so strong that homeowners who traditionally do not rent past the summer have kept their homes available into the fall.

“We’ve had some owners open their calendars for the first time ever, and they received bookings that they’ve never had,” he said. “So, it looks like business is going to be brisk at least through mid-October, and I think Thanksgiving and Christmas will also be busier than we’ve seen in quite some time.”

The continuing appeal of the Outer Banks during a pandemic, which led to big visitor numbers and spending once the OBX opened to visitors in mid-May, is now creating projections for an unprecedented fall tourist season.

That expectation has led, among other things, to the extension of lifeguard service on local beaches well past the traditional Labor Day cutoff. And while the live event and entertainment sectors of the economy remained virtually shuttered, restaurants—even while observing social distancing—are looking to extend their summer rebound for a few more months.

“Since Labor Day we haven’t slowed down at all…usually the business in this restaurant takes about a fifty percent drop off,” said Mike Dianna, founder of Mike Dianna’s Grill Room in Corolla. “Actually, it’s been even busier than any week in the summer this past week. It’s kind of strange.”


The seeds for what the Outer Banks is now experiencing were sown earlier in the year. When Dare and Currituck Counties reopened the Outer Banks on May 16, pent-up demand seemed to explode.

“The floodgates just opened up when the county commissioners opened the Outer Banks back up,” Bob Oakes, President of Village Realty, said. “We had our best three weeks ever with bookings after they opened.”

The so-called “shoulder seasons” have shown steady improvement for a number of years. Although Hurricane Dorian devastated Ocracoke and the southern end of Hatteras Island last September, occupancy on the northern Outer Banks continued to be very strong.

But what happened this summer pushed families to the fall when they found there was nothing available during the peak season.

“I will tell you in the history of my management experience, I think one year we sold out eight weeks. That’s always been my bar, and then it’s rare to sell out everything. This year we sold out fourteen weeks. It’s unbelievable. It had to extend into the fall,” Cafferty said.

The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau publishes monthly updates of occupancy for Dare County. For July of this year, the most recent reporting available, occupancy revenue was up 37.3% over 2019 revenue. The increase was so large that year-to-date occupancy at the end of that month was up by 3.4 percent. That’s despite losing $35.5 million in revenue for the months of March through May.

The gains have been across all areas. Earlier in the summer, upper end hotels in Dare County were lagging in occupancy compared to home rentals. That no longer seems to be the case, according to Jamie Chisolm, Director of Sales at the Hilton Garden Inn.

“The increase in the rental home market led to more demand,” she said. “The limited inventory there led to more demand for hotels that absolutely helped in recovering from the two months that we were shut down.”

That trend has continued into fall. “Right now, through September and October it’s looking very good,” Chisholm said.

Although the strength of the summer occupancy was important in creating a stronger fall season, it was not the only factor. Property managers are consistent in pointing to online instruction in schools as a significant factor.

“We’re getting a lot of folks [with children going to] virtual schools,” Village Realty’s Oakes said. “If you’re going to go to school, you might as well go to school on the beach.”

There is something else in the mix this year, Midgett observed. “It’s a different group coming to the area than before, probably twenty-five to thirty percent. You can tell by the questions you get on the phone. ‘Where do I buy my parking passes? What time is it that the umbrellas up on the beach?’ You can tell the people who have never been here.”

The most apparent effect of the surge in fall occupancy is on the Outer Banks rental homes and hotels filled with visitors. They are not, however, the only impacts.

On Sept. 2, Cape Hatteras National Seashore announced it would extend lifeguard protection on National Seashore beaches through the month. Dare County and the incorporated beach towns have also extended lifeguard service through the month.

Carolina Design’s Monica Thibodeau serves on the Duck Town Council, and she points out that it may be necessary to keep lifeguards on local beaches beyond that.

“We’re…talking about whether to go into October,” she said. “We’re making sure that we’re giving the best service we can to visitors that are here.”

Quite a number of lifeguards are college students and typically they would be back at school by now. However, 2020 is not a typical year, and with many colleges going to online classes, there is still a pool of trained lifeguards available.

There are segments of the Outer Banks economy that are lagging despite the visitor influx. Live entertainment and restaurants have been particularly affected by COVID-19 restrictions on crowd size and social distancing requirements.  Entertainment continues to struggle, but for restaurants the extended season may prove to be a much-needed lifeline.

Mike Dianna, who owns Bearded Face Productions, an Outer Banks music promotion company, has his feet in both worlds. He is perhaps best known for his Mustang Music festivals in spring and fall and the Outer Banks Food Truck Showdowns. His Mustang Spring Jam was canceled earlier this year and his fall events are questionable.

“All of my large-scale fall events are canceled. I have the Food Truck Showdown on the books for the end of November, but that’s the only large event I have on my calendar for the rest of the year. Frankly, I’m not quite sure how, if we’re still in a distancing type situation, it will happen.”

But even with those concessions to COVID, if the Outer Banks continues to see occupancy levels that property managers are reporting for the next few months, 2020 may actually be a record-setting year.

Lee Nettles, Executive Director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, agrees that signs are good, but is cautious in his optimism.

“It sounds like fall could be particularly strong for us,” he said. “But a couple of years ago things were looking particularly good going into July and then we cut off power for Hatteras Island. So, I get scared when we start counting chickens.”





  • Tri-Village

    This is great for the economy of few but I believe I speak for the residents and workers on the Outer Banks this is just depressing. Ask any random employee whether it be your pool cleaner, house keeper or cashier. The people that have visited here this year have been horrid. The houses have been destroyed week in and week out. Tourists wanting to fight employees because of the mask mandate. Trash everywhere because despite being informed of the trash pickup the cans overflow on changeover day. So forgive some of us for not jumping up and down with joy. I hope the fall season brings in nicer people , but I doubt it. Many of us have never wanted a hurricane so bad in our lives.

    Friday, Sep 18 @ 3:27 pm
  • Alice Ann Ann Hengesbach

    Dear Tri-Village, I understand completely.

    Friday, Sep 18 @ 8:35 pm
  • Mary

    WOW! 100% through October even without painting those flowers at the foot of the bridge to welcome visitors in May! Sure hope the Covid vaccine is in the near future!

    Friday, Sep 18 @ 9:35 pm
  • anotherobxman

    There is a commonality among the tourists this year and it is not good. I have never see such a bunch of inconsiderate people in all my life.

    Saturday, Sep 19 @ 9:02 am
  • Zack Bass

    I hope we have a very early winter.

    Saturday, Sep 19 @ 12:44 pm
  • Stephen

    Tourism on Hatteras was much better 20 years ago, and the type of person was pleasant.
    Why? because they were fishermen and recreational types. Now its just self entitled folk including the kiteboarderkooks.

    Saturday, Sep 19 @ 1:16 pm
  • Dave Rohde

    Obviously we have more tourists later into the season this year . 100% might be a bit of hyperbole. I drive down the beach road every morning and I noticed quite a few empty houses on the west side of the beach road and even a few empties on the ocean side . 100% seems like an exaggeration

    Saturday, Sep 19 @ 1:31 pm
  • Surf dog

    To all those people that bitched earlier in the year, so there. I hope with he extra income – you donate to the local food bank. I also agree with other posters that the people who are coming here are the rudest, self centered, obnoxious, and down right un-outer banks atitude.

    Saturday, Sep 19 @ 2:40 pm
  • Sean

    Why are these tourist so rude. Some of them need bigger thicker masks with sock in them. They drive like they cant think of anything but themselves I saw a woman driving her car on the bypass in the left lane going 35 drifting into the turn lane and back when I went around her she had her phone on top of the steering wheel texting I slowed down blew my horn a few times when she saw me she started videoing me. I gave her the loser sigh and gave her the middle finger as she finally sped up to speed. Freaking idiot tourist. And I know some are absolutely great but others have no sence she was from va

    Saturday, Sep 19 @ 5:11 pm
  • Anita Hoggard

    I need work any house cleaning for rentals?

    Saturday, Sep 19 @ 5:14 pm
  • MP19

    I’ve been coming to the Outer Banks annually for more than 30 years and relish every trip. This year we thought a trip was out of the cards with COVID, but a renovation at home left us displaced for a few days so we found a little cottage for rent and booked a few days. What a saw was not the OBX I know… it was something else. The hospitality across the board that usually greets us like a big hug and smile after a long day, was almost entirely absent. Agree with other commenters above, that the people who were here aren’t the usual crowd. Even my husband who has only recently joined the annual family summer trips could sense the shift in atmosphere.

    Talking at length to a couple servers at a few of our favorite spots in Nags Head left me even more saddened – to hear the absolute crap they have been put through by whoever these newcomers are. No wonder locals are in a foul mood.

    I hope whoever these jerks are stay the heck away next year. The OBX I know and have loved since the 1980s is on its own vacation somewhere else this year…I hope it’ll be back in 2021.

    Saturday, Sep 19 @ 10:58 pm
  • Guy Sumerlin

    This makes me absolutely sick. This county put everyone at risk Just to make money. I feel everyone that’s caught covid-19 should sue the county for opening the bridges and allowing people into our community and spread the virus. Noone cares about us just the money. I hope all of you gets the karma you deserve for putting me, my family, and loved ones at risk to catch covid-19 just so tourist can come here. Makes me sick. Aren’t none of the people making the money helping those that got sick so as far as im concerned you won’t be getting my vote this election

    Sunday, Sep 20 @ 7:40 am
  • Sandflea

    I can’t agree more with the above posts. Visitors this year were/are the worst I’ve seen in 20 yrs. Seems all the profits for the homeowners will be used to fix up all the damage.

    Sunday, Sep 20 @ 8:27 am
  • hightider

    Quit putting out the red flags and maybe the number of tourists will decrease.

    Sunday, Sep 20 @ 6:13 pm
  • Lou Briccant

    Why do you keep allowing all the posted bigotry to continue? Latest numbers showed a whopping 10 active cases within Dare County as a whole… the world hasn’t ended like many of these same posters claimed would happen. People need to cut it out and get on with life.

    Monday, Sep 21 @ 10:49 am
  • OBX'er Part Time

    Thank you Lou… the sky isn’t falling! Those people do suck, and agree that they are aggravating – but understand 2 important facts! #1 – The usual vacations spots for these spoiled tools were closed, therefore, there really had no where else to vacation. #2 – EVERYONE, I repeat EVERYONE was shuttered for nearly 3 months before the bridge opened, so really, you couldn’t have expected anything different. Not an excuse by any means, but you have to look past the end of your own nose to understand why. Good news is that your cities and counties shouldn’t have an budget issues this fiscal year. That’s goo news – no job losses or programs cut! Remember – this too, shall pass!

    Tuesday, Sep 22 @ 3:32 pm
  • Jim

    “100% through October” does not mean we have the same number of tourists now as we did in the summer. It means that the houses that are available for rent in the shoulder season are booked roughly 100% through October. But there are a lot more rental homes available in the summer. Many owners take their units out of the rental programs in the fall. So, even with “100% through October”, we have less traffic and less tourists now in the summer.

    Tuesday, Sep 22 @ 5:57 pm
  • NC Beachy

    The real estate companies are the biggest exaggerators. One hundred percent of fifty percent of your normal inventory is not the same as one hundred percent. All you have to do is drive around and you will see lots of homes that are not rented. And yes a lot of the visitors were extra this summer, hopefully they will take their disdain for us home and recommend no one visits the outer banks.

    Wednesday, Sep 23 @ 8:55 am
  • Heather Brewster

    I just remember when dare county closed borders when this all started, many visitors complain that the people living on the banks just didn’t want to work and that’s why they kept the borders closed for so long…. I’m starting to think that these visitors need a reality check and they themselves need to go back to work and let workers that have been working 18 hours a day to service their spoiled needs a break. If schools go back here I can’t imagine what’s going to happen. There are so many children that walk and ride their bikes to school. And these visitors have no concern for folks that live here. I guess they think everyone here is visiting. Just this morning a moron backed into a transformer and it caught on fire. I have school aged children and the power was off and they couldn’t connect to their school. I think if places would start closing it could possibly make them not want to come.

    Wednesday, Sep 23 @ 11:17 pm
  • Lou Briccant

    Heather Brewster what are you on? When Dare closed its borders those within its borders weren’t locked in and prevented from going to work… good grief where do people get their information?

    Saturday, Sep 26 @ 7:11 pm