Tourism at a crossroads on the Outer Banks

By on November 20, 2023

By Brian Tress | Outer Banks Voice

(First of a three-part series on the challenges and goals for managing tourism on the Outer Banks)

Tourism can create significant economic benefits, including visitor spending, higher tax revenues and more jobs. But as the number of tourists continues to grow, the associated costs become more obvious. Tensions with local communities can increase, often impacting quality of life; the fragile natural environment is threatened; safety issues arise as overcrowding exceeds the limits of local infrastructure; and the workers needed to sustain the industry itself are priced out of the market as housing becomes unaffordable and the cost of living soars.

Eventually, the actual costs may outweigh the benefits and some tourists will stop coming.

Earlier this year, the Long-Range Tourism Management Plan (LRTMP) was released by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, at the heart of which is the question, “Where do we go from here?”  Tourism has long been the epicenter of the economy of the Outer Banks, but the burst of extreme growth that took place during the COVID pandemic taught both industry and community stakeholders here an important lesson—the destination must be managed, not only marketed, but steered like a ship in turbulent and uncertain waters.

The LRTMP asks us to “Imagine it’s the year 2033. Tourism in the Outer Banks is more balanced than a decade ago, as visitor management efforts have taken shape and expectations of visitors to the area are communicated in a way that protects our core values and sustains the environment, culture, and community for the foreseeable future.”

To meet that objective, the LRTMP has laudable but ambitious goals related to achieving growth in the tourism economy while managing tourism’s impact on the local community and the natural environment. It acknowledges that achieving the plan’s objectives will have to be a team and community-wide effort.

This article has complied the input of many of the community leaders who are critical to marshalling the willpower and manpower to implement the long-range plan—hoteliers, restaurateurs, non-profit foundations, environmental organizations, attractions, event venues, national, state and local parks, vacation rental managers, politicians, the Dare County Tourism Board, and the Visitors Bureau.


Planning for the Future

According to Lee Nettles, Executive Director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, the LRTMP was conceived prior to the COVID pandemic. At that point, the term “overtourism”—when historically high growth in visitors results in strained infrastructure, environmental degradation, and an overall drop in the quality of life for local residents—was already being used more and more, with destinations increasingly pivoting toward tourism management with intentional growth.  “There was a gap between resident satisfaction and visitor experience here,” Nettles says. “Long-range planning seemed like a way to bring those groups together.”

But after the pandemic started, the Visitors Bureau hit the pause button. Unexpectedly, though, COVID created an environment that magnified the need for the plan. According to Nettles, “It allowed us to see what the world would be like with unrestrained growth. It helped our efforts – made it real what was at stake.”

In the spring of 2022, the Dare County Tourism Board sought proposals from qualified research and consulting firms and created a task force to oversee the work. The LRTMP was published in May 2023, following an 18-month process that included a survey of more than 4,500 residents and meetings with more than 50 stakeholders through a series of focus groups, in-depth interviews and town halls.

For Tim Cafferty, Chairman of the Dare County Tourism Board and founder of Outer Banks Blue, a vacation rental and management company, deciding to move forward with the plan was born of personal history and necessity.  “My father was one of the original realtors here,” Cafferty says. “I have a keen sense of history and I honor those who came before. It’s up to us to make sure our children can say the same thing.”


The Complex Reality of Tourism

Tourism is especially important to the Outer Banks, as it directly accounts for $79 million in local tax revenue and 45.5% of the jobs in Dare County, according to the LRTMP. Chris Sawin, CEO of the Outer Banks Community Foundation, puts it this way: “Dare County’s economy is developed because of tourism. It’s given our donors a vehicle for making a real difference.”  The Foundation is responsible for the stewardship of their donors’ charitable resources, in the form of grants, scholarships, disaster relief, advocacy for non-profits, and more. Sawin adds, “Tourism has enabled generosity. CEOs, attorneys and bankers come here to retire because they have come here on vacation. We have a hospital because of tourism.”

Chris Sawin (right), CEO, and Scout Schillings, Grants Manager, of the Outer Banks Community Foundation in their new office in Manteo. Sawin says, “Tourism has enabled generosity.” (Courtesy:  Brian Tress)

But tourism can be a double-edged sword if not monitored and pro-actively managed. Many destinations without the abundance of riches that the Outer Banks offers focus largely, sometimes only, on increasing visitor volume through marketing activities. While the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau also has this mandate, the LRTMP defines a path forward for concurrently managing the negative impacts of tourism to safeguard the destination for the future.

The LRTMP identifies challenges and recommends solutions related to tourism in the Outer Banks, which generally can be grouped within three major categories: affordable long-term housing and workforce readiness, environmental stewardship, and community well-being.


Housing and Workforce, Workforce and Housing

The plan suggests that tourism industry stakeholders collaborate with Dare County and other partners to advocate for an increase in housing diversity for all residents in the Outer Banks. In acknowledging that the tourism industry’s role is to advocate rather than lead, the recommendation implies that successful implementation is ultimately dependent on others who will make the final decisions.

The plan includes the idea of advocating for more home ownership options as well as exploring more public-private housing initiatives. The challenges are formidable, including community   opposition, NIMBYism, and market forces, i.e., whether or not market pricing will be affordable to permanent residents.


Jamie Chisolm, President of the Outer Banks Hotel Association and Director of Sales and Marketing at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kitty Hawk, believes that the major tourism-related challenge in the Outer Banks is: “Housing and workforce. Workforce and housing.”

“As of yet,” she continues, “the towns have been unable to come up with solutions and we have seen affordable housing propositions fail before they ever get off the ground.”

The recent significant increases in visitation and visitor spending in the Outer Banks have resulted in a proliferation of the number of short-term rentals (STRs), which in turn has led to a substantial decrease in the inventory of affordable long-term housing. This is particularly evident during peak season. The sentiment of many tourism-industry stakeholders is that insufficient staffing has contributed to inconsistent operating hours, increases in wait times, increases in complaints and negative reviews about service quality, burnout of staff and management, and a decrease in the ability to attract qualified labor and middle-management, who can’t find affordable long-term rentals and can’t afford or don’t want to risk buying a house.

Rick Herlihy, Director of Sales and Marketing at the Sanderling Resort, concurs that housing and hiring are the biggest challenges to the industry here, and that they are entwined. “Having come from resort communities that are remote and STR-driven, I understand the issue,” he says. “It’s harder here. Long term rentals are not available, which hurts hiring. And the alternative, which is coming here and purchasing a home, is too big a commitment for middle-management.”  The Sanderling’s current solution is to board new hires at the hotel or company housing for a few months so they can get to know the area, but there is no guarantee they will find something affordable after that.

Rick Herlihy (left), Director of Sales and Marketing, and new hire Thomas Blake, Marketing and Programming Coordinator, of the Sanderling Resort in Duck. Herlihy has worked in other resort communities and says the housing issue is “harder here.” (Courtesy: Brian Tress)

Restaurants—on the front lines of tourism daily—have also experienced the crunch. Mark Ballog, owner of the Lucky 12 Tavern and a member of the Dare County Tourism Board, reflects that “I remember when we used to be open seven days a week and served pizza until 2 a.m. Now we close on Sunday and we’re only open until midnight because there’s not enough staff. I didn’t have a dishwasher for three weeks this summer—guess who filled in? Me! And I’m supposed to be managing this place.”

He adds, “We need workforce housing. I don’t know of any long-term rental opportunities here.”  Ballog owns a house specifically to rent rooms to employees at below-market rates. He notes that “There’s a place in Colorado where you get affordable housing if you can prove every three months that you work there. Guess what? The restaurants are well-staffed there.”

Mark Ballog, owner of the Lucky 12 Tavern in Nags Head, had to fill in as dishwasher for three weeks this summer until he found a replacement. (Courtesy:  Brian Tress)

Ben Sproul, the outgoing mayor of Kill Devil Hills, also thinks housing and labor is the number one problem—particularly the ratio of short-term to long-term housing—but that there are no easy solutions. He believes the path to success is “to take small bites that incentivize change.”  He explains that “Our board looked at ways to encourage the development of alternatives to cruise-ship homes. The key is incentivizing deed restrictions.”  As an example, he refers to the 21 houses that will be developed as a cottage court on West Martin Street behind the Walgreens in KDH. “It is a totally private project that allows the developer to put smaller 2-and 3-bedroom homes there with an attractive combined density, but the houses are required to be occupied by year-round residents.”

According to Lee Nettles, a major factor in developing a year-round economy—which could create a more consistent workforce throughout the year and an impetus for long-term housing—is more tourism in the non-peak months.

“Building an event center here is the single greatest thing the Tourism Board could do at this moment to contribute to a year-round tourism economy,” he says, referring to the 48,275-square-foot event center proposed for development at the current Soundside Event Site in Nags Head. “We can develop the center based on our mandate, but also to benefit the people who live here—hosting sports, concerts, banquets and galas, and other local events. The rationale is that we are presently very limited in indoor facilities for events.”

However, some stakeholders believe that increased visitation during the shoulder- and off-seasons may become problematic. According to David Hallac, Superintendent of Outer Banks Group of National Parks, “It would not be better for us. Our model is to hire seasonal staff—spring to early fall. We don’t have the ability to staff up during the shoulder- and off-seasons.”  Additionally, many residents cherish the relative peace and quiet of the non-summer months, and some business owners, such as restaurateurs and hoteliers, use the downtime to recharge and make necessary property repairs and upgrades.

The event center is currently in the planning phase with completion not expected for several years. Until then, the Tourism Board will continue to implement its event grant program – which helps non-profits or government entities put on events outside of summer – and market off-peak events that both grow visitation and are an expression of the Outer Banks culture, such as the Seafood Festival, OBX Brewtag and various surfing events.

(The second part of this series will examine efforts to connect tourism to environmental stewardship on the Outer Banks.)

SEE ALSO: PART TWO – Tourism at a crossroads on the Outer Banks: This installment examines the connection between tourism and the environmental stewardship of the area’s natural treasures.

PART THREE: Tourism at a crossroads on the Outer Banks: This installment examines the connection between tourism and benefits to the community.


  • correction

    “As an example, he refers to the 21 houses that will be developed as a cottage court on West Martin Street behind the Walgreens in KDH. “It is a totally private project that allows the developer to put smaller 2-and 3-bedroom homes there with an attractive combined density, but the houses are required to be occupied by year-round residents.”.

    Pretty sure the only requirement is they can’t be short-term rentals (ie rent shorter than 90 days). But anyone can purchase them whether they live here year round or not. So they could still become second homes

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 11:56 am
  • surf123

    It does not take any sort of intellectual capability to state that housing is a problem. Inability to find employees is the result of not having housing so it is a side effect. Affordable housing is not going to happen anywhere near the beach, but maybe on the west side of the 158, Manteo, mainland Dare or Currituck. There are no other choices and of course the best use of any lodging of any type is daily/weekly rental and that will never change. Those with the funds need to purchase lodging for their employees to ensure they will have employees. There really is no solution to the problem as no one wants this type of housing anywhere near them. No matter what the outcome the BOC and towns cannot capitulate by changing (variances) the zoning laws to “make it work (feasible)”. We are well beyond the time of ended variances for any reason other than to fix existing issues.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 12:50 pm
  • Charles

    For many years late wife and I spent Thanksgiving Week on the outer banks – usually in a beach front house we rented for a week. Sometimes we shared parts of the week with other adult couples – all long time friends – as our guests. Always my dime for the rental.

    Recently found a photo album dated 2002 showing son and his wife and children and daughter and her husband all enjoying that Thanksgiving week in a beach house.

    One time after that wife and I spent a few days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in a modern beach front hotel.

    Three trips with daughter and her husband after wife died – most recent included a long drive down to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum which was closed even though supposed to be open – 2020.

    An earlier discussion about wild horses included in the column about 28 bedroom rental houses being permitted. Wonder if an explosion of such misnamed hotels could be contributing to excess tourists?

    All in all I may have aged out of my enthusiasm for the Outer Banks. Was a good run though.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 1:02 pm
  • Jeff Walker

    Anyone else think it kinda defeats the purpose to put in charge of developing a long term sustainability plan the very people whose financial motivations are short term profit?

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 2:48 pm
  • Glenn

    Last summer and again this past season, numerous friends of ours took their tourism dollars to other coastal areas in Delaware, South Carolina and the East/West coasts of Florida. Despite being offered a free place to stay at our home they passed on the offers citing congestion, crazy traffic, rude people, trashy beaches and walking paths, mediocre restaurants…etc. We heard the same song repeatedly…”the OBX has lost its magic”.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 3:02 pm
  • Robert Schaible

    When we had a true tourist season , we all as locals could look forward to the unwind and relaxing nature of living here on the Outer Banks, seems like now though it’s all about extending the season for just really one reason , money, seems like we all have to face the reality of our so called visionaries perceptionof where the Outer Banks should be heading, so why fight it , let’s start the high rise condo and motel style.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 3:32 pm
  • Don Joyner

    The one group these “business leaders” refuse to listen to are the residents. I live off of Martin street and believe that project is one reason we have an “outgoing mayor”.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 3:49 pm
  • Dylan

    When I see “Crossroads” I think of the legend of bluesman Robert Johnson’s infamous deal with the devil. But I believe that we are past that crossroad here in the outer banks. Eventually it will all balance out but not before considerable pain.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 4:01 pm
  • Tourism Board Ad

    This article looks like an advertisement for the Dare County Tourism Board.

    “This article has complied the input of many of the community leaders who are critical to marshalling the willpower and manpower to implement the long-range plan—hoteliers, restaurateurs, non-profit foundations, environmental organizations, attractions, event venues, national, state and local parks, vacation rental managers, politicians, the Dare County Tourism Board, and the Visitors Bureau.”

    All of these people who were interviewed have a vested interest in promoting tourism and they are all connected one way or the other to the Tourism Board. The only exception was Dave Hallac (Superintendent of local National Parks) who thinks additional tourism would not be a good thing. The promotion of the Tourism Board was so over the top that the author listed it twice.

    The Dare County 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. They are funded by taxes that provide them with over $15 million per year to promote their own self interest without regard to any negative consequences. The officially named “Dare County Tourism Board” does business as the “Outer Banks Visitor’s Bureau” but it is the same entity.

    They all support taxpayer subsidized low income housing. The author even quoted Ben Sproul “the outgoing mayor of Kill Devil Hills” who thinks housing is the number one problem. It seems that everyone except the author knows that the reason Ben is the “outgoing mayor” is because he was just defeated by a landslide in the recent elections, where the primary issue was Ben’s support for taxpayer subsidized low income housing.

    According to LinkedIn the author is a consultant for the tourism industry. His clients include tourism agencies just like the Tourism Board. I wonder who paid his fee to write this article.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 5:01 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    You are entitled to your opinions on the story, but you are not entitled to suggest the story was paid for by anyone other than the Voice.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 11:43 pm
  • Bob

    I have seen several homeless people having to sleep on the beach because the house they were renting went AIR Bnb or the got booted when the lease ran out and the owners went to renting to tourist. We have too many tourist and not enough affordable housing for workers or locals. We don’t need anymore tourist driving up our taxes esp. sales tax. Locals should get a break on the sales tax. Why should we have to pay extra just to bring more tourism. Let the tourist pay the extra fees.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 7:18 pm
  • Rexcraigo

    My first visit to the Outer Banks was in 1978 at 17 years old with my grandparents. As a fisherman I loved it. As I matured I found my way back regularly beginning in the late 80s and was a regular up to the first COVID year in 2020. I would come leading a group of 6-10 and rent a 6-8 BR beach house in April or October, sometimes both. And I also began to come on late December. Those beach houses would rent for around $3500 per week in April/October which was reasonable. Once COVID hit and VACASA came in the prices have almost doubled. I won’t be back due to the greed. It’s ridiculous, sickening and maddening.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 8:18 pm
  • Obxserver

    So far, based on this being the first article of a series; I am reminded of the old parable of the six blind men and the elephant. For those unfamiliar: “The parable of The Blind Men and The Elephant tells the story of six blind men who examine one part of an elephant and each come to very different conclusions on what an elephant is. They are all partly right, but also all entirely wrong.”
    I’ll continue reading with hope; but am also reminded about another parable. There’s an oft repeated tale about how certain hunters in Africa catch monkeys. It can be very difficult to corral these intelligent creatures, so hunters have used a more inventive method…trapping a monkey by enticing him. A small jar is placed at the base of a tree with nuts or other items which may attract the monkey’s curiosity. The opening of the jar allows the monkey to place his hand in, but when he tries to withdraw it, he is unable to do so without letting go of the contents of the jar. Believe it or not, some monkeys will stay there with their hand in the jar until the hunter comes back to trap them! They are trapped because they are unwilling to let go of something they are doing which is working against them. In other words they are trapped by their own greed.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 9:45 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Interesting comment although I don’t think I understood much of it.

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 11:46 pm
  • AliceinWonderland

    Um-they are still in the planning phase of the Convention Center?!!!

    “The event center is currently in the planning phase with completion not expected for several years”

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 8:32 am
  • charlie

    Tourism here is at a crossroads and the tourism bureau knows it.. It has actually tried to engage with locals. It has hired a Community Engagement Manager… Why?…Because the years of expansion of tourism at the expense of quality of life has caught up with it.. The turn actually started with the “event site” and the golden idea of a convention center.. The dream of a convention center i sstill out there even though the whole convention industry is having serious problems.. Here we are expecting rain and windgusts, just your typical yukky Outer Banks weather at this time of year.. And the pipedream of attracting conventions at this time of year still exists…
    The real estate and developer industry actually is adding screws to our tourism with these megamansions.. The cute cottage courts, small motels and family size houses which were affordable and attracted tourists year after year are being wioped off the map…
    Perhaps Dare county and the tourism bureau should look seriously at asking the state to amend the ordinance which controls how tourism $$ have to be spent… Get rid of the mandate to try to expand the shoulder seasons and use the $$ creatively to help with housing.. I applaude the tourisn boiard for starting to think outside the box.. Now think outside an even bigger box..

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 9:26 am
  • Randolph

    For transparency’s sake and to get a full picture of the story, I think it is important to know (and a fair question to ask) just how much of the taxpayer’s dollars were spent (and continue to be spent) on the task force, consultants and production of the LRTMP? While the need to responsibly manage tourism is clear, so too is it necessary to manage the use of resources to continue to identify a problem which is plainly obvious. In the end, it may all be for naught as prevailing economic principles and conditions may render all well meaning (yet self-serving) attempts to corral the problem mute. If the supply of already stretched thin tourism resources (inclusive of labor) cannot meet the demand, then a necessary contraction of the overall industry will be thrust upon it. And this of course all assumes that Mother Nature allows these insignificant issues to continue without her interference. During our machinations and meddling, it is all ever too easy to forget we’ve built it upon a very thin (relatively unstable) stretch of sand.

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 9:56 am
  • Kit`

    I say again: Unless the local gov’ts manage any “affordable housing,” whatever is built will be bought by entrepreneurs and rented for as high a rate as possible, further exacerbating the issue. Affordable housing is anathema to the real estate market, which only wants profit while the labor force can’t afford to live here unless they are paid a sufficient wage, which is directly contrary to the desire for ever-increasing profit. The problem won’t be solved until there is no more room for additional rental properties on the Outer Banks and tourists become disenchanted with Outer Banks vacations!

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 12:13 pm
  • Niccolo Donzella

    Property owners and developers are going to deploy their assets to attain maximum profitability. The hope that government can change these basic facts of economics is an old one destined to disappoint. Central planning never really works, especially in housing and real estate. China’s Communist Party’s contemporary attempt to create housing has collapsed, leaving thousands of unfinished units in multiple locations deteriorating in the sun. In the 1960s, federal, state, and municipal projects to create affordable housing created the “Projects” across American cities that led to a myriad of social problems, and ended with the abandonment and tearing down of that housing stock. I don’t see our local governments having any more success, although our local government planners and officials are good people trying to make things better. They can’t. There’s always a way around the rules and the intent. We attract more people than we can handle. As Glenn notes in anecdotal reports, tourists are beginning to notice. The solution may force itself upon us, good faith efforts to operate beyond our capacity notwithstanding, in fewer people coming due to disappointing experiences.

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 5:08 pm
  • Currituck

    Laughable that anyone thinks they can or do control the actions of 100s of thousands if not millions of tourists.


    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 5:24 pm
  • Paul

    I fail to understand what evidence is the to support the statement: “Building an event center here is the single greatest thing the Tourism Board could do at this moment to contribute to a year-round tourism economy,” Currently there is little use of the Soundside Event area and building an event center that would attract out of the area would be a colossal waste of money that would benefit only the developers. For event/conference centers to be profitable having a major airport is key! Participants having to rent a car and drive 2 hours would be a show stopper. Look up north for evidence that proves even with the infrastructure in place conference/event centers is not a good use of dollars, in a recent audit the Virginia Beach Convention Center is operating at a 2 million dollar loss.

    Sunday, Nov 26 @ 7:05 am