Where will Outer Banks tourism be in a decade?

By on May 25, 2023

‘Long-Range Tourism Management Plan’ looks ahead 10 years

Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, discusses the Long-Range Tourism Management Plan on May 24. (Photo credit Corinne Saunders/OBV)

After considering global tourism trends and garnering local input, a consulting firm working with the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau presented a “Long-Range Tourism Management Plan” on the evening of May 24 at the Ramada Plaza Oceanfront in Kill Devil Hills.

The plan outlines what is characterized as a “moderate, balanced approach” to tourism.

Shelly Green, executive consultant with MMGY NextFactor, told about 50 event attendees that the company has worked on the plan for about a year.  The firm considered global tourism trends, conducted resident surveys, held two town hall meetings, conducted 15 one-on-one interviews and seven focus groups, and conducted a survey specifically for business and tourism leaders.

Green reported that Outer Banks residents and tourism leaders alike found the pandemic-related surge in tourism unsustainable, with the word “balance” surfacing repeatedly.

Paid accommodations revenue in Dare County increased 57.2% from 2019 to 2022, according to the plan’s executive summary. “In 2021, visitors to Dare County spent $1.8 billion, supporting over 12,000 jobs and $79 million of local tax revenue,” it reported.

In 10 years, according to the plan, visitor spending would be at $2.1 billion, “jobs would stabilize at about 12,087 related to the visitor economy” and the shoulder seasons would account for about 23% of Outer Banks visitation, “so it’s not all that sharp peak and decline” from the summer months to the rest of the year, said Cass McAuley, senior vice president for MMGY NextFactor.

Survey respondents shared that tourism is vital to the Outer Banks’ economy, with positive benefits outweighing the negative. However, “the local economy is too heavily dependent on tourism—that’s what we heard,” Green said. “There’s also a fear that the more tourism there is, the more traffic there is, so something needed to be done about traffic.”

“You are now the poster child for how to do a resident survey, as you had 4,500-plus people [respond]; and that’s just not numbers that we see even in much larger destinations,” Green noted of the Outer Banks. “So people care, and they wanted to tell us what they thought.”

From looking at global tourism trends and local priorities, “we came up with three transformational opportunities,” Green said. They are alignment, sustainable development and values-based marketing.

Alignment is “aligning the public, private and civic centers, so they’re all understanding and seeing the same thing,” she said. Sustainable development goes beyond environmentally friendly development—”this is how you marry people, planet, profit and policy.”

For values-based marketing, Green said, “These communities in the Outer Banks have very strong values. And using those to attract and serve visitors helps find the visitors that will value what you have—and we think that’s a really important part of this.”

The plan identifies four strategic goals to move forward:
  • Strengthen resident and visitor engagement.
  • Adopt an integrated approach to improving environmental stewardship.
  • Support infrastructure development that benefits the vitality of the community for residents and visitors.
  • Collaborate and advocate for an increase in housing diversity for all residents.

The first point includes steps such as encouraging visitors to continue partnering with local nonprofits, investing in “voluntourism,” creating a resident advisory council, hiring a “community engagement manager,” and creating a “visitor pledge” for respectful treatment of the area, McAuley noted.

The second goal is “so we aren’t loving a place to death,” she said. “We heard so much about traffic, and we’re seeing it tonight. So how do we get around?” She referenced the presentation start time, which was delayed 10 minutes because several attendees were stuck in traffic on their way to the Ramada.

The third goal would involve undertaking a density study, improving accessibility around the Outer Banks for residents and visitors and supporting initiatives like pedestrian safety, while the fourth goal means advocating for and working toward “alternative and more sustainable housing,” she said.

During the question-and-answer session following the presentation, a man noted that the Outer Banks area includes more than six municipalities and asked if the firm had worked in other areas with a “similar situation.”

“We do have a lot of experience in multi-jurisdictional areas,” McAuley responded.

Lee Nettles, Executive Director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, added that the work here is not starting from the ground floor, given how the tourism board includes representatives from each town, the county, the chamber of commerce, tourism and at-large members.

“Just by the nature of the composition of the board, we’ve already had years of working together and kind of understanding and leveraging those differences and working toward common goals,” Nettles said. “So it puts us in a good position to kind of start this next loop and these next initiatives.”

A woman in attendance asked how plan initiatives typically get funded, and McAuley said, “The funding for these initiatives is going to come from many different sources, and collectively, we need to think about that.”

Nettles said in his remarks before the presentation that COVID brought a vision of the future and that, much like Ebenezer Scrooge’s change of heart after visits with the three ghosts in “A Christmas Carol,” the community can change course.

“I feel like we’ve closed the gap between the tourism industry and the locals in a way that hasn’t been done since I’ve been here, and we want to keep that going,” Nettles told the Voice after the meeting.

“The residents’ advisory council, I think, is going to be a big first step…[and] hiring the community engagement manager is another big first step,” he said. “At this point, we’ll go into the June meeting of the tourism board and…have a couple of immediate items we can move on and start prioritizing some of the other activities.”

Tim Cafferty, chairman of the Dare County Tourism Board of Directors, said the data and survey results revealed through the planning process came as no surprise.

“Things I see as a business owner day-to-day came out in spades on this report,” he said. “I’m just very interested as a business owner [in] what can I do to help? And what can others in the role in other places do to help? Because I think the industry has to step up here and go to work.”


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  • Mary

    A “visitor pledge” for respectful treatment of the area…now that’s a hoot! Honestly!

    Friday, May 26 @ 5:45 pm
  • LBC

    I’m not sure where OBXVA is getting his information from but the Tourism Bureau does in fact fund the police stationed at the crossroads to the Northern Beaches…Duck intersection…during the in-season. From Memorial day to Labor day. In fact they have been doing so for close to a decade at this point…since 2013 I think. So not only does ‘tourism’ fund for every aspect of every aspect of every town in Dare County…including the existance of nearly every job and business that exists here…the bureau itself also pays for those police. This is public knowedge…meetings are open to the public…there is a literal line item on their website for this very thing. Item 5170 – Traffic Control Hwy 158 & Hwy 12…There is still $4,530 left from fiscal year 2023 and another $20,000 beginning July 1 for the coming year.

    One can certianly argue that the free market and under regulated capitalism in its purest form is ‘ruining’ the OBX but to claim the Tourism Bureau doesn’t care about locals based on not knowing things is a problem

    Friday, May 26 @ 6:09 pm
  • Human Utensil for the Rich

    The over development of the Outer Banks was an experiment.
    The experiment is at a major saturation point.

    Saturday, May 27 @ 6:48 am
  • disgruntled

    I appreciate your reporting on this but as expected reading it was a waste of time. It does reveal that the “plan” seems to be continue on without a plan.

    Saturday, May 27 @ 8:35 am
  • Jason

    Hello, long time reader first time commenter. Thought I might take Mark up on his offer and give a positive comment. Just a regular tourist. Mom and Dad honeymooned here in 1971, stayed at the Old London Inn. My first time was at the See Sea around 1980, still smile and am amazed it is still there when I drive by. Brought my wife in 99, she had never been here before. After that this is where we have always done our main week vacation as she loved it as much as I did. I was there 2 weeks ago with my children and grandchildren. These days I am fortunate enough to rent a house for the week. Everyone agreed this one was the best one yet. Certainly has built up over the years. And perhaps restaurants and service is a little more challenging, but vacation is what you make of it and it was great. Also any restaurants or stores or Food lion that we went to was full of friendly folks saying hi. I imagine real world interaction is typically more friendly than comments on the local issues. Lord willing we will be back next May for another enjoyable week as that is the current plan. I enjoy the website since I have been coming there for more than 40 years and sort of see the place as home away from home and like to keep up on what is going on. Thanks

    Saturday, May 27 @ 8:52 am
  • Charles

    “I feel like we’ve closed the gap between the tourism industry and the locals in a way that hasn’t been done since I’ve been here, and we want to keep that going,” Nettles told the Voice after the meeting.”

    Any examples ?

    Saturday, May 27 @ 2:20 pm
  • Kitty Hawk Rock Star

    This whole thing is a giant PR move to allow residents to moan, think their opinion matters and then do whatever the business people want, which is to get rich and pay as little as possible to employees.

    Sunday, May 28 @ 8:21 am
  • Greg Cremia

    Residential housing shortage.
    Employee shortage.
    Restaurant shortage.

    The common denominator here is there are too many visitors straining the system. The tourist bureau’s solution to these problems? Do another study and then spend more money to bring more vacationers here. How about we just slow down attracting more visitors and give the beach a chance to catch up. If they have to spend on tourism then how about spending more of their 9 million dollar budget on enhancing the visitors stay here with projects that benefit everybody such as a bus service, beach accesses, etc and less on advertising. Lets slow the growth down to manageable levels.

    We are on the precipice where word of mouth advertising could result in negative growth when vacationers, who saved all year to come here, finally have enough waiting in line for bad service and decide to go somewhere else and then tell all their facebook friends about their bad experience here.

    Tuesday, May 30 @ 6:13 pm
  • Steven

    Mr. Greg Cremia,
    That is exactly what we’re praying for, negative growth and bad experiences shared in media, greatly diminishing numbers of the current demographic of ‘vacationers’..

    Thursday, Jun 1 @ 10:57 am
  • Njgeorge

    As a past frequent vacationer to obx we have noticed the increase of traffic, packed food venues, lousy service and higher prices. All the same things can be had at the Jersey shore so why drive to NC?
    More big box, convenience, and fast food stores just kills the charm.
    We will be spending our disposable income somewhere else in the future
    Glad we didn’t buy into obx like we were thinking of doing.
    I feel sorry for the long time residents.

    Thursday, Jun 1 @ 3:53 pm