‘Sustainable tourism’ — for visitors and locals

By on August 24, 2021

New initiative ties tourist economy to community vitality

Whitney Knollenberg speaking recently at Jennette’s Pier.

During a presentation to an audience gathered at Jennette’s Pier in late July, Whitney Knollenberg, assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at NC State, addressed an issue she hopes becomes a commonplace term here – “sustainable tourism.”

Knollenberg’s current work on the Outer Banks is, in fact, being funded by the new Lighthouse Fund for Sustainable Tourism, the outgrowth of a partnership between NC State and Twiddy & Company President Clark Twiddy, who is footing the bill.

The idea is to bring a fresh perspective to the issues involved in sustaining the Outer Banks’ tourism economy while improving the quality of life for those who live and work here. Or as Knollenberg put it: “It’s got to be a great place to visit and a great place to live. You have to have both pieces.”

Over time, Twiddy hopes the initiative will take root and grow. “I would love to see an Office of Sustainable Tourism on the Outer Banks that is constantly exploring the best practices around the world for sustainable tourism and teaching us…on the Outer Banks, how to do this in the best possible way,” he said.

It’s no secret that Dare County is in the midst of an explosion of visitors. As an example, a comparison of available year-to-date numbers from the Dare County Tourism Board for 2021 and 2019 (pre-pandemic) shows that occupancy revenue is up 68%, and food and beverage increased by 25% so far this year.

“We spent thirty years as a community trying not to be Myrtle Beach [or] Virginia Beach, and we did a great job with that,” Twiddy says, quoting a friend’s observation. “But frankly we just didn’t anticipate how popular we would become.”

That popularity has put real strains on the system that sustains tourism.

“We started to see negative impacts. We started to see that there were going to get shortages in our workforce, in our supply chain,” Knollenberg said at her presentation. She pointed to restaurants that have had to reduce hours in peak season and cautioned that if tourists have to wait for service and “they’re not having a great experience…they could tell a lot of other people that they didn’t have a great time on the Outer Banks.”

In her interview with the Voice, Knollenberg elaborated on the inextricable link between attracting and servicing visitors and sustaining the locals who make that happen. “It is the people who are at the heart of this [tourism] industry, who keep it running,” she said. “Those people are crucial to the industry being sustained.”

She cited the importance of creating sufficient affordable or workforce housing — terms that are frequently used here — as the key to a sustainable tourism economy. And she pointed out that the issues confronting the area are different than most tourist-driven economies.

“The Outer Banks is unique in many ways because of the geography,” she said in the Voice interview. “We’ve got to think about what makes sense in terms of places that we could build that will be safe to be long term. Things like the issues with being able to build to code for hurricane compliance.”

She also pointed to the jurisdictional structure of the Outer Banks as an issue that has to be acknowledged to address the affordable housing crisis.

“Something that really makes the Outer Banks unique is that we have three separate decision-making bodies [in Currituck Dare and Hyde Counties], plus the incorporated areas within Dare County,” she said. “There’s lots of people having to think about this and make decisions for their constituents and their residents.”

For his part, Twiddy noted that tackling these issues will probably require a regional approach. Increasingly the Outer Banks workforce, he points out, does not live on the Outer Banks, and the best way to address the issue may be to work with the communities where the workers already live.

“The Outer Banks workforce, more and more, is orienting to Elizabeth City, to Columbia. That’s where the affordable housing is and I would love the idea that maybe we could have a regional planning board that has housing as a focus,” he said.

At her July 28 presentation at Jennette’s Pier, Knollenberg also called for a shift in how we think about tourism and used another relatively new term around here – “destination management.”

“A way to think about this, the paradigm that could be helpful, and changing our approach to tourism is called destination management…It’s been adopted by many other communities across the United States and across the world,” she said. “It focuses on balancing all those wonderful opportunities, growth of visitation, environmental responsibility and quality of life, while still ensuring that residents and those who deal with those negative impacts of tourism every day, are engaged and participate in development and benefit from tourism.”





  • Mike P

    Nothing to see here folks, just another term for a paid consultant/ booking agent.
    Twiddyville? No thanks!

    Tuesday, Aug 24 @ 12:46 pm
  • Kathy

    I wonder what the estimated cost of affordable dwelling units will be for the proposed NC State funding Dare County received. Recently saw on Facebook/Instagram a Las Vegas Company, BOXABL, that intends to mass produce small houses that ship and unfold readily for hookup to septic and power by local contractors. These units cost $49k and come furnished for various users. It’s worth a look IMO.

    Tuesday, Aug 24 @ 2:08 pm
  • Dethrol

    Why does the solution have to include a new government activity? I’m a simple man but it seems to me we already have a tourism board (such as it is). Couldn’t Dare County and the town councils of all the communities on the Outer Banks get together, clean house on the Tourism Board and refocus the mission statement and it’s efforts to include these priorities? Without reforming the Tourism Board by ending the perception (or reality) of its corruption, we’ll be reading an article just like this one ten years from now.

    Tuesday, Aug 24 @ 2:30 pm
  • Pearl

    Wow. This history sounds so familiar.
    Let’s move the natives/residents out. We can then get more
    wealthy people to come here and have our businesses benefit from their riches!
    We can then get poor natives from other places like Columbia and Currituck and bring them here in buses and only have to pay them slave wages.
    Again , WOW.

    Tuesday, Aug 24 @ 4:51 pm
  • Dean Stinson

    The main issue is getting workers over here to fill the many vacancies. Affordable housing in Corolla is not an easy fix with land values being elevated. The answer though lies in getting workers here. One solution that needs to be considered is the construction of the bridge. I understand many residents are against this but it would give people access to reach this area as well as a quicker access to more advanced healthcare. . We have had many tragedies this year requiring chopper support which takes time. Timing is everything in trauma resuscitation. Corolla is definitely on the map which means a constant flow of tourists which again leads to an increase in medical emergencies. Also the amount of full time residents requiring advanced medical care is also on the rise. Corolla has so much to offer. We want to be proactive in solutions. Retired CRNA.

    Tuesday, Aug 24 @ 6:03 pm
  • Diane McCurdy

    The restaurant and business owners need to form their own coalition for providing affordable housing for staff. “Take care of your own” and “If you want it done right, do it yourself ” come to mind. B Unlike land developers, construction companies, etc. who are looking how to make the most profit (and there is nothing wrong that) . If you can’t be open ……its done and the dream……GONE.

    Tuesday, Aug 24 @ 6:25 pm
  • jim

    Would like to see how this plays out. Are they willing to limit new construction or stop it completely. Could they set a maximum occupancy density per square mile. The existing road system is currently not capable of handling the volume of cars passing through. So how do you handle that, without building more bridges and roads; which is often not possible. Or are we just talking about insufficient low cost housing; for the summer service workers, so that existing businesses can staff properly. Would like to see Twiddy real Estate offer some hard core solutions that unfortunately may affect their bottom line. Assuming that residents are “engaged and benefit from tourism ” indicates that some large businesses don’t understand that some of us just want peace and quiet.

    Tuesday, Aug 24 @ 7:38 pm
  • Sean Mulligan

    Joni Mitchell wrote a song about what is happening on the Outer Banks.

    Tuesday, Aug 24 @ 9:55 pm
  • Marcia

    My husband is from OBX and we come for a visit 1or 2 times a year. The one thing that would make our time there so much more enjoyable is a restaurant that serves the great food offered at other restaurants but without the alcohol! Friends of our who have now discovered OBX have commented on that very issue to us.

    Tuesday, Aug 24 @ 9:59 pm
  • Kevin

    It’s a mentality that has to be upheld by the residents. It’s like a brand of a business. You can’t rebrand and fix a business if the people that make it are not willing to be progressive and open to ideas that can very well help the dire community built as a tourism economy. Just look at all the push back in comments on every affordable housing or staffing article. They either don’t understand and get angry at people trying to help them, or they think immediate result- like a band-aid that would only last so long. But a brand must grow piece by piece overtime as a unified belief. I’m not saying put all your trust in one basket, but let’s simply let at least some trust exist in the first place.
    I wish you all peace.

    Wednesday, Aug 25 @ 12:59 am
  • Mark

    As of today the 2 largest HVAC companies on the beach are corporate owned. The largest real estate company is now corporate owned/partnership, and the majority of new businesses coming in are corporate chains.
    With rising prices for commercial properties, the locally owned Mom&Pop stores and restaurants the OBX is famous for has become nearly impossible to a person in the private sector.
    The state collects over 40% of the entire states sales tax from Dare County. How interested do you think North Carolina is in letting the OBX remain the sleepy little fishing village when it means the politicians coffers will be effected?
    The OBX as it was can never be again. Too many dollars leave the beach to be used for political donations for local residents to have any real impact on its future.
    With the average cost of an entry level home on the OBX at $300k, if you can find one, what local companies pay enough for a couple to afford that mortgage?
    In case you haven’t noticed from similar situations, when you have to import foundational employees from out of the area due to rising housing costs, you also see crime rates go up because people are vested in the community.
    We had more shootings in KDH last year than in the previous 15 years I lived there as a case and point.
    How many drug busts from out of towners when the bridges were being monitored?
    It may not be Myrtle Beach or Virginia Beach, yet. It’s definitely not the OBX I remember when I moved here 17 years ago. It will never be.

    Wednesday, Aug 25 @ 6:07 am
  • Bud

    Tourism twenty years ago used to be healthy with the type of person that visited. Now it’s totally destructive, type of people are the undesirables that previously went to Myrtle Beach and Jersey shore.
    Houses used to be built that look nice and fit the environment, now they try to outdo each other as to who can be the worst eyesore. Entire subdivisions are being painted unnatural colors.
    Developers are destroying entire ecosystems. Tourists are destroying our lives and lively hood.

    Wednesday, Aug 25 @ 6:14 am
  • OBX Local

    This is the most ridiculous article I have read on here in a while. As soon as I saw “Clark Twiddy is footing the bill”, I laughed out loud. DISGUSTING!!!! It is all for publicity and to sell books, yes Mike P, I agree with you!
    Working with Elizabeth City and Columbia to house our local work force, because we want to keep the OBX for the rich and all the homes on rental market.

    Diane M. the “take care of your own” attitude is exactly where we are now. Its not working!

    I do believe Dare County just recently bought back the huge “sound side event space” in Nags Head from Nags Head for over $1 million. I believe local and affordable housing in that area would a better benefit the locals at least a lot more than a “Friday night movie by the sound”.

    What the locals need is housing…PERIOD! Stop with all the BS it really is just that simple! You can not be a tourist driven community without a local work force that LIVES HERE!

    Wednesday, Aug 25 @ 6:27 am
  • Cliff Blakely

    Marcia, Sorry but that hard for a restaurant to do. The profit margin on alchohol is high and the margin on food is quite low. Before liquor by the drink (1980) we had just a handful of free standing restaurants on the beach. The majority were in hotels. 1980 changed everything. We now have a vast collection of restaurants that serve various types of cuisine. We still have non alcoholic restaurants, but they all have drive troughs.

    Wednesday, Aug 25 @ 8:05 am
  • Mike P.

    Yeah Sean
    ..and it was 51 years ago that Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi was released… most know the song as They Paved Paradise.
    Interesting is she wrote the song about what she saw in Hawaii.
    Anyway same story going on here..

    I see a bit of irony because it appears the decline here started soon after Twiddy and Co. formed.

    Wednesday, Aug 25 @ 10:30 am
  • Proud to live here

    I read that some counties in other states have designated specific neighborhoods to be off-limits to AirBnb, VRBO, and similar rentals, in order to “preserve the special nature of the residential neighborhood.” It allows home prices to stabilize in those neighborhoods and avoids issues with the constant flow of short term vacation rentals next door to local residents. Could we start to develop this type of neighborhood as a way to develop pockets of residential areas for local residents, where home prices don’t have to compete with vacation rental buyers?

    Wednesday, Aug 25 @ 1:35 pm
  • C A

    Everyone with an ounce of brain matter knew this problem would one day arrive. It’s here, it has arrived.

    Every County Board, every Municipality Board, and everyone living here knew it.

    Nothing was done about housing when there was plenty opportunities to do so.

    There was no planning done, and zero consideration for the finite sum of available land to do something about it.

    Like fat squirrels we all sat there grinding on the seemingly abundant acorns. We all built our little kingdoms.

    I remember in the mid eighties no matter where you went on the beach or who you talked to there was a 90% chance that individual had a spec house under construction.

    Didn’t matter that he/she was a Chiropractor or a Pharmacist, or some other profession or line of work. Everyone seized their opportunity.

    In the meantime, none of these governments or anyone cared to look ahead as we all built out the area.

    Now the suggestion is that many of those that did spend their lives in service and support must relocate 45 minutes or more away to an encampment to continue to support this is on the table.

    What in the world did we expect would happen? Look what has happened. It’s actually very embarrassing.

    Do we really believe there will be a government solution to this issue now?

    If I remember correctly years ago we were largely against, ” Bussing “, then,……now because we’re older, and perhaps more established is it ok now?

    I’m not sure what direction this all is going go. I do know there aren’t many directions available.

    What I do know however is clearly it will take a leadership that has not shown itself to date.

    I also know there will be some economic pain involved, however not as much as it’s already caused.

    Can’t have a great place without great people in it. Are we being great?

    Wednesday, Aug 25 @ 2:17 pm
  • Tri-Village

    Dare county needs to ban airbnb. There are enough short term rentals. The idea of our workforce being bussed in is sickening. Y’all can work here but we don’t want you living here. How is that commute going to work for Hatteras Island when the hwy 12 is inundated on Pea Island? I write this comment on about every article related to this subject, what happens when there are not enough people living here to be on the volunteer fire departments? Its only going to get worse until our elected officials remove their lips from developers asses

    Wednesday, Aug 25 @ 3:36 pm
  • ChillCat

    If you want to understand more about sustainable tourism, visit unwto.org. This program is run by the United Nations World Tourism Organization and it is geared toward achieving 17 sustainable development goals.

    Wednesday, Aug 25 @ 7:57 pm
  • Czarina

    How selfish and irresponsible it is to say “it’s OK if the workers have to live 1 1/2 to 2 hours away! At least they can afford it.” These workers are PEOPLE whose life should includes more than driving back and forth to work at hours when most beach people are still asleep!!! That is NOT sustainable!

    Thursday, Aug 26 @ 6:41 am