Nettles links Dare County tourism boom to COVID

By on December 29, 2021

Visitors Bureau boss also says current visitor levels not ‘sustainable’

(File photo credit: Neel Keller)

As occupancy and meals revenues continued to soar in Dare County, Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles says the COVID-19 pandemic has played a significant role in those record-shattering numbers. But he also acknowledged the need for more gradual tourism growth, noting that the recent visitor explosion in the county isn’t “sustainable.”

Last week, in his monthly recap, Nettles reported that the October 2021 occupancy revenues, at $43.8 million, marked the 17th straight month of record revenues. Meanwhile, meals collections, at $29.1 million in October, experienced their 10th consecutive record-breaking month.

“There’s no doubt that COVID has just brought us into the spotlight,” Nettles said in an interview with the Voice. “It emphasizes the points that have always set us apart…and I think the fact that we have so many vacation rental homes lend itself well to being able to kind of have a controlled environment, even on vacation.”

The October 2021 occupancy revenues are up 6 percent over the October 2020 numbers, which were up a whopping 83 percent from the 2019 figures. As for meals revenues, October numbers represented a 30 percent increase over last year’s total for the same month.

“All those things that we highlighted before just took on a whole new meaning with COVID and I think it led to a lot of first-time visitors checking us out,” Nettles pointed out, adding that the temporary halt of international travel and cruise vacation, coupled with the popularity of the Netflix hit, Outer Banks, all likely contributed to the Outer Banks’ growing popularity.

But Nettles stated that the soaring numbers aren’t likely to last and aren’t an ideal situation to be in, explaining that steady controlled growth is preferred.

“I think that what we have been experiencing is not a new normal. I do think at some point, it’s gonna’ chill out and kind of dip,” Nettles asserted. “I don’t think it’s sustainable for us to have the amount of visitation that we’ve had.”

Nettles said it’s not sustainable in part because of the massive shift in employment due to COVID, with the impact particularly acute in the hospitality and tourism industry.

“Nationally, we lost more jobs than any other sector, and we’ve been the slowest to fill those jobs,” he said. “A lot of people are either staying out of the workforce or this has been enough to prompt them to rethink their careers and what they’re doing and consider other types of employment. We’ve seen the workforce shortages here, locally.”

While businesses have been trying to manage the workforce shortages by employing such measures as closing on certain days or shortening hours, Nettles pointed to the strain it creates for business owners. “You can do that for a year,” he said. “But you just can’t do that forever.”

When then tourism boom will ease, Nettles acknowledged, isn’t really clear. But he added that,” It looks like for the first half of next year, the visitation projections are very strong.”

Nettles stressed that the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau has always focused on trying to grow the non-peak months, and not cram more people into the summer months.

“It’s not in anyone’s best interest to have too much visitation or to cram more people into summer in particular because it creates a situation that’s not good for visitors and it’s surely not good for the people who live here,” he said. “That’s not what we want. I would much prefer the days when we were growing consistently and steadily four percent a year. That’s manageable and responsible growth.

“How long will all this continue?” he asked. “COVID and our record visitation…we’re in uncharted territory.”




County Dare, North Carolina
Dare County Tourism Board

NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN that the Visitors Bureau will hold a public meeting to review the plans for an Outer Banks Event Center. The meeting will take place on Monday, June 6, 2022 from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. at the Keeper’s Galley building at Haven on the Banks, 115 Dove Street, Nags Head North Carolina 27959.

Still in the conceptual phase, the Event Center is intended to provide suitable and flexible space for year-round events, concerts, sports, meetings, smaller tradeshows, galas and any number of other uses. Learn more about the benefits for visitors and residents and how the Event Center is planned to complement the new Soundside boardwalk that is being designed.

Staff will be on hand to answer any questions. For additional information, please visit our Event Center FAQ page.



  • Travis

    I don’t know. Sort of reminds me of those old Faberge commercials where the tagline is “”And they’ll tell their friends- and so on, and so on…” while multiple image of Heather Locklear fill the screen (never a bad thing).
    Anyway, point being as long as people come here and enjoy their vacation the word will continue to get around and people will continue to come here. So the turning point will not be some intangible “unsustainable” point, rather when people’s experience here becomes overwhelmingly negative due to the crowds, cleanliness, environment, lack of services, etc.
    And they tell two friends and so on and so on…

    Wednesday, Dec 29 @ 3:34 pm
  • Beethoven's 5th

    The Outer Banks is a fantasy and sooner rather than later it will loss its luster.

    What once made this place a paradise has been destroyed, and as Travis stated the more people come the more what’s left will be soiled to the point its no longer the destination point of yesterday.

    Big box stores and fast food have displaced the mom and pop establishments that were a tradition to those that visited. It’s sad to admit, but the Outer Banks of yesterday was laid to rest 25 years ago, when the first mega-mansion was built.

    Wednesday, Dec 29 @ 10:33 pm
  • Noel B

    I agree that the current level of tourists is not sustainable and is causing the locals to have a declining quality of life. The solution is to cap the occupancy rate to 80%.

    You will have to battle the greed of owners of “rental machines”, but it is the only way to save our way of life.

    Thursday, Dec 30 @ 6:02 am
  • Ralph

    We need affordable housing for the service workers! Rather than spending money on the Visitors Bureau stating the obvious, why not divert the funds to a Housing Bureau?

    Thursday, Dec 30 @ 7:49 am
  • Mary

    Remember when the Visitors Bureau suggested the NCDOT paint “hippie” daisies at the foot of the bridge to welcome and encourage tourism? Ha! Who didn’t know that when the bridge opened “They will come” ?
    Furthermore, as long as the county continues to approve the horrendous building of 20 bedroom “homes”, how can you not expect “cramming” ? The damage is already done, and the sad thing is…it’s allowed to continue at an alarming rate on every square inch possible!

    Thursday, Dec 30 @ 9:16 am
  • Obxer

    But I saw on Facebook that someone said it’s manteos fault for having new years fireworks!!!! There all kinds of IQ levels among us!

    Thursday, Dec 30 @ 9:45 am
  • Tri-village

    So, Nettles is overwhelmed by a problem he had a hand in creating. This crap is out of control. I have an idea , get rid of Airbnb on the Outer Banks and issue a building moratorium. If we as a collective can’t keep up with the number of visitors coming here ,then why make more rentals. Its like this county has an eating disorder. “I ate an entire bag of cookies but I think I can squeeze a few more in”. It’s going to be an interesting summer here in Rodanthe. The people that are here for the holidays are a glimpse into what we are going to see this summer. The roundabout is going to cause major accidents. In one day I had to veer off the road twice because out of state tagged vehicles were driving south in the northbound lane . I guess they were too busy looking for the Nights in Rodanthe house to pay attention to the traffic signs. I am not the only person that has happened to. Come May multiple the vehicles here by a thousand. If y’all take anything from this rant please pay attention to the new traffic pattern. Some of us aren’t on vacation. I was taking my pregnant wife to an appointment when the first incident occurred. And Nights in Rodanthe was a horrible movie. Most of it was not filmed in Rodanthe.

    Thursday, Dec 30 @ 10:13 am
  • Ken Owen

    Nothing’s going to change until this place becomes unappealing to all the outside interests that have made Dare county all but unlivable for regular working folks. And that requires all of us banding together to take back our home, by any means necessary.

    Thursday, Dec 30 @ 10:14 am
  • Michael

    I agree with all of your points. My opinion is the numbers will grow and grow. The obx has become an obsession. It’s definitely driving the workers out and it’s not sustainable but that’s not going to change the numbers. They’re coming and coming strong worse every year. No affordable housing means hard workers have to move. It’s as simple as that.

    Thursday, Dec 30 @ 6:18 pm
  • Bud

    When visitors were fishermen, recreationalists, beach people, this was a wonderful place. Now visitors are not interested in the outdoors and adventures, they want to be waited on, served and catered to, they have no interest in what makes life enjoyable.
    Such a shame.

    Friday, Dec 31 @ 9:46 am
  • Tracey Bugbee

    This was a wonderful peaceful place to enjoy the wonders OBX has to offer. Then the county got greedy and allowed Saga to come in and start building all these mini-hotels. Has anyone looked at that? A house that used to hold 5-8 people was torn down and a mini hotel that now holds 20-30 took its place. How about the county go back to restricting building before the whole area is destroyed?

    Friday, Dec 31 @ 12:52 pm
  • Billsnc

    I could be mistaken, but I believe there was a legal battle where the municipalities we’re trying to limit sizes of houses, but the court sided with the home builders.

    @bud, we get it… Obviously lots of people disagree with your sentiments about the area being ruined, as there appears to be lots people wanting to move here. Not everyone enjoys the exact same things as you, or values the exact things you value. The only constant in life is change…

    Saturday, Jan 1 @ 10:47 am