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.”


  • Steven

    In ten years our communities, neighborhoods, livelihoods, and local families, will have been completely destroyed.
    We are almost there already..

    Thursday, May 25 @ 4:56 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    I’m just making this comment and it’s not directed at you Steven or anyone in particular. But is there anyone out there who doesn’t believe the Outer Banks is barreling full speed toward hell in a high-powered handbasket? If so, I invite you to send a post.

    Thursday, May 25 @ 6:22 pm
  • Bill

    I just retired after living here for over 30 years. It’s too built up and too crowded and I’m tired of Hurricane season and all the worrying. It’s time to leave. The Sugar Kingdom coming to Kitty Hawk is just one more sign that the Outer Banks is turning into Virginia Beach.

    Thursday, May 25 @ 7:01 pm
  • Czarina

    Mark – Having vacation on OBX since 1970, and lived here for 16 years, I have seen it “barreling full speed toward hell”. So disappointing that my grandkids will never be able to enjoy what I grew up with. Allowing the mini-mansions was the biggest mistake!

    Thursday, May 25 @ 8:27 pm
  • Josh

    One investor should not be allowed to buy up all the properties for short term rentals. There should be a regulation requiring investors to offset the lost home for sale with a long term rental. One weekly rental and the next property would need to be long term before another short term. They both make money but still provide options for locals who need to rent. Dare should also offer grants/no interest loans for local home buyers. We have the money to help.

    Thursday, May 25 @ 9:00 pm
  • Local Dude

    I respect the Visitors Bureau for trying, but gosh we just paid a lot of money for some boilerplate platitudes that won’t actually solve any of the underlying problems. These consulting firms are laughing all the way to the bank and we are sitting here kicking the sand saying “well at least we tried”. There is no fix. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This community is stuck in the crossroads. We are all seeing the year-round proliferation of out of state plates from the entitled NRPOs. People who can afford multi-million dollar second and third homes seem to be crawling around like cochroaches while the working stiffs are scrambling to survive while they do their dirty work. We are all seeing the fact that people have just flat out lost their damn minds when it comes to doing whatever they want on vacation. First responders are stretched thin. First responders are doubly stretched thin because there are so many vacancies due to new hires can’t find an affordable place to live within 50-100 miles. And every attempt the county makes to create affordable workforce housing gets pushed back with full force because Not In My Backyard! whether its the rich folks off Hollowell in Nags Head or the generations of Wanchesers. You can’t even let a local pizza shop open without rich entitled folks screaming about chewing, offensiveness, and pool tresspassing risk. I don’t know what the solution is because I don’t think there is one. Money always wins and its sad for our wonderful community.

    Thursday, May 25 @ 9:54 pm
  • Dethrol

    Mark, the Outer Banks is one of the greatest places on this planet. The people who hate about this place have a perspective problem. Tourism and tourists have been the only game in town for more than 200 years. Can you imagine the clatter from locals when the first electric lights were installed here. I’m sure it ruined the “rustic” nature of the place. Just consider what they thought of the first automobile that rumbled down the beach. Those nasty mainlanders and their newfangled contraptions! Distant relatives of mine built one of the first hotels here back in the early 20th century. By then, the boom was already in full swing. If you were a latecomer (you folks who got here in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, etc) the locals were complaining about you and convinced that you were the embodiment of evil and all that was wrong with the world. I’ve visited more than 180 countries and there is simply no place like the Outer Banks. That’s a fact, at least based on my personal and professional experience.

    Thursday, May 25 @ 11:19 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Thanks, Dethrol.

    Friday, May 26 @ 12:14 pm
  • Touchy-feely Tourists

    The Tourism Board was created by a state law that specifically gives control to the Chamber of Commerce, the Restaurant Association, the Hotel/Motel Association, the Board of Realtors, and other officials with a vested interest in promoting tourism in Dare County. Their crazy plan to spend $18 million to build an event center (next to a new hotel) shows that they have no interest in limiting tourism or growth.

    Anyone who took the survey knows it was biased to promote tourism and discount the destruction of our quality of life and our fragile environment. The resulting report is 65 pages of double-talk eyewash and consultant speak gibberish intended to appease the citizens of Dare County.

    For the tourism board, “sustainable tourism” means the tourists will still drive 24 cars to stay in 24 bedroom McMansions and crowd our shrinking beaches but they will be nicer and friendlier touchy-feely tourists. They promise not to fart in our faces.

    Thursday, May 25 @ 11:33 pm
  • Jeff Walker

    The time to have worried about this place being lost to greed was well over 20 years ago.

    Friday, May 26 @ 5:38 am
  • Steven

    Hate to say it, but at this point the only saving grace will be a Cat5 direct hit.

    Friday, May 26 @ 6:56 am
  • Ron

    I have to agree with Dude that the “Plan” developed” over one year” did not result in anything other than a bunch of canned platitudes probably used in many other previous jobs. With a legislature in Raleigh that prevents local towns from instituting their own ordinances to control growth, mini-mansions and other housing plans, we are doomed to become Myrtle Beach II. Thank your “representative” in Raleigh.

    Friday, May 26 @ 8:31 am
  • Glenn

    One just pulls onto the bypass and you feel like “I can get hit at any second”…it’s treacherous. Very sadly, the quality of the food at so many of our local restaurants continues to go down hill (with definite exceptions). Just yesterday we took our friends to dinner at a Nags Head restaurant and, at best, it was mediocre. So disappointing. But, my wife & I will continue to support local restaurants and non-Starbucks type cafes. We’ll continue to pick up trash from our bike paths, neighborhood streets and beaches. We’ll continue our best to be there for our community when tragedies strike. But, one can’t help feeling that we’re definitely heading in the wrong direction. Very sad.

    Friday, May 26 @ 9:01 am
  • Sandflea

    In response to the question you posted above; I guess the answer is a resounding “no”. Rich people who don’t live here that are too busy buying up and destroying the island apparently don’t have time to post here.

    Friday, May 26 @ 9:16 am

    The Visitor’s Bureau doesn’t give a HOOT about the locals. If they did, they would have agreed to fund police o be stationed at the crossroads (stoplight) headed to the Northern Beaches during the Season. Nags Heads doesn’t particularly like the locals either. Let’s cater to the Visitors and the locals can suck it up- is their Motto. Local Dude, you are exactly right. Everyone screams about housing, then the towns say NIMBY. Bill, we are Va. You are correct.I believe in property rights. Your property, do with it what you will as long as you meet the zoning parameters. This is a catch 22 situation. Money and Greed RULE Dare County. Always has and always will. This is nothing new, especially here. I met a gentleman from a Raleigh/State position that assists with marshlands etc. He told me: Every county has corruption and they usually try to hide it. Dare County is right in the open with it, leading the Parade.
    There are two groups of families in Dare County: The Haves and the Have Nots. They Haves will make sure that You will remain in the Have Not category.

    Friday, May 26 @ 10:45 am
  • Pearl

    The project is taxes. If the upper 1% and the rich corporations paid their taxes there would be no deficit. They exploit us working class.
    Then they get us angry at social programs because we cannot pay anymore. When we should be looking at the massive wealth they are accumulating on our backs. We should be paid living wages,
    and have healthcare and pensions. We are the richest country in the world but the rich do not pay. Amazon and Besos are now the norm. We have to end loop holes and get real people to represent us in our government. We are angry at the wealthy doing as they please but our tax laws have enabled THEIR ENTITLEMENT!

    Friday, May 26 @ 11:23 am
  • Bebe Reposo

    “A community engagement manager”; “a visitor pledge”- seriously? Aren’t the locally elected officials supposed to engage with the community? What is a visitor pledge that is not a joke?
    “The fourth goal means advocating for and working toward “alternative and more sustainable housing”. That’s a great new thought. There are old motels/hotels that have been closed, such as the Duke of Dare in Manteo, which could have been turned into worker housing, but nothing of that sort has been done.
    It just doesn’t seem that this study was very valuable, unless specifics are submitted.

    Friday, May 26 @ 1:34 pm
  • Smokey

    Agree with Dude. The rich are getting richer and our beaches reflect that. Time to stop and take a breath before this once quaint area becomes the next Virginia Beach.

    Friday, May 26 @ 1:47 pm
  • Stuck Here On Purpose

    “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”

    “Survey respondents shared that tourism is vital to the Outer Banks’ economy, with positive benefits outweighing the negative.”

    If those two observations seem to you to be in conflict with each other, I suggest you look up the term “astroturfing” since it’s written between the lines all over this report.

    Friday, May 26 @ 3:30 pm
  • mom

    The charm of NH, KDH, KH is long gone but this isn’t just here. The over building is happening all over the US and even in Mexico and Central America at places people want to be. Our infrastructure can’t handle this now and things aren’t going to improve with more folks coming here to live or vacation.

    Friday, May 26 @ 3:46 pm
  • Carol Wallis Please show ' Carol in Avon' !!

    Local Dude, Bill, Josh, Mark, & Others………
    TOO SAD But ALL TRUE ,,,,,,,,

    Friday, May 26 @ 4:17 pm
  • Charles

    “The funding for these initiatives is going to come from many different sources, and collectively, we need to think about that.”

    Hahahaha- sounds like a plan

    Friday, May 26 @ 4:25 pm