Tourism at a crossroads on the Outer Banks

By on November 21, 2023

(Photo credit: Brian Tress)

By Brian Tress| Outer Banks Voice
(Second in a three-part series on the challenges and goals of managing tourism on the Outer Banks.

This installment examines the connection between tourism and the environmental stewardship of the area’s natural treasures.)

The Long-Range Tourism Management Plan (LTRMP) released by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau in 2023 recommends adopting an integrated approach to environmental stewardship.  As vague as this may sound, progress has already been made toward this goal, although there is still much more to be done.  Leaders of organizations such as the Coastal Studies Institute and National Park Service—action-oriented proponents of environmental stewardship who also understand the importance of tourism to the OBX economy—will have a voice in how the plan is implemented as ongoing members of the LRTMP Task Force.

The LRTMP’s objective of environmental stewardship has a head start in the Outer Banks, as efforts have been made by tourism, environmental, and non-profit stakeholders to engage visitors with the natural environment, including placing educational screens and signage in strategic locations such as parks, beaches, piers and hiking trails, and hosting science-oriented summer camps for kids who live or are vacationing here.

Stakeholders are already supporting low-impact and immersive recreation by funding improvements to parking areas and more accessible launch points for kayaking and kite surfing and developing new multi-use paths and hiking and biking trails. And ecotourism activities like birding, dolphin-watch tours and wild horse tours have gained in popularity, although are not as established as other recreational offerings, such as fishing charters and water sports.


Nonetheless, a shadow hovers over these initiatives, given an expected one-foot rise in sea level over the next 25 years that could wipe out entire beaches and the houses alongside them. Reide Corbett, coastal oceanographer, geochemist and Executive Director of the Coastal Studies Institute in Wanchese, views the LRTMP as a mechanism to talk about the vulnerability of the Outer Banks and how to be resilient.

“To think we can maintain a resilient beach all over Dare County is naïve.” he begins. “Dare County is at the forefront of the implications of climate change.  We need to use the data we have—changing shorelines, increasing inundation—to focus on varying vulnerabilities and decide where to invest. This tourism management plan allows these topics to enter the dialogue—we want to maintain a resilient shoreline because that’s why people come here. Houses falling into the ocean, exposed septic tanks, these are not great images for tourism.”  According to Corbett, the Town of Nags Head is already bringing science into their planning process by convening a shoreline management committee and incorporating sea-level rises in their planning documents.

Reide Corbett (left), executive director of the Coastal Studies Institute in Wanchese, leading a field group.  Corbett says, “To think we can maintain a resilient beach all over Dare County is naïve.” (Courtesy:  Coastal Studies Institute)


Corbett says there are a variety of tools that can enable the Outer Banks to be strategic on where and how it maintains its beaches, such as property buy-outs, house relocations, selective nourishment and disincentivizing people from buying or developing homes in precarious locations.

“We should be focused on satisfaction, not growth,” he says. “Every community should be actively looking at their current zoning regulations and putting them in a framework of where we are today, not the 80s and 90s.”

David Hallac, Superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern NC and a biologist by training, agrees that the physical security of the Outer Banks is the number one long-term priority.  In the short term, his primary goal is to accommodate the trend of increasing visitation while protecting the National Seashore. According to Hallac, “We have 30,000 acres and 3.5 million [annual] visitors. To put this in context, Yellowstone has 2.2 million acres and the same number of visitors. Our goal is to achieve a balance between managing the resources for future generations and preventing public lands from being loved to death.”

David Hallac, Superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern NC, says that his ongoing goal is “to prevent public lands from being loved to death.” (Courtesy:  Brian Tress)

Jockey’s Ridge hovers around 1.5 million visitors annually and is typically one of the top three busiest state parks in North Carolina. Like Hallac, Joy Greenwood, Superintendent of Jockey’s Ridge, must manage the impact of visitation and surrounding development on the park’s fragile ecosystem.

“We want to maintain the purpose of the park for visitors but also need to protect it—some natural processes have been interrupted,” she says. “One and a half million visitors stomping on the dunes has impacts. Construction around the park has impacts—building houses protects small trees from the wind and increases the density of vegetation, and also cuts off the sand supply.” Greenwood says that the park is flattening out as a result; what used to be a single 140-foot-high dune in the 1970s and 80s is now three dunes ranging in height from 60 to 80 feet.

Educational and precautionary signage in Jockey’s Ridge Park.  According to Joy Greenwood, Superintendent of Jockey’s Ridge, ““We want to maintain the purpose of the park for visitors but also need to protect it.” (Courtesy:  Brian Tress)

Reide Corbett believes that environmental partners like the Coastal Studies Institute can proactively help Dare County build up ecotourism, thereby softening the impact of the millions of visitors who come to the OBX annually. Ecotourism is defined by the International Ecotourism Society as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education. While ecotourism activities—such as birding festivals, dolphin-watch tours, and wild horse tours—have grown organically in the Outer Banks, Corbett suggests, “We can further develop ecotourism programmatically and help educate the workforce through workshops and seminars.”

(The third and final part of this series will examine the relationship between tourism and community well-being.)

SEE ALSO: Part One: Tourism at a crossroads on the Outer Banks

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


Barnhill Building Group has been selected as the Construction Manager @ Risk by the College of the Albemarle and is seeking to pre-qualify construction trade contractors to submit bids for the furnishing labor, materials, equipment, and tools for the new College of The Albemarle – Allied Health Sciences Simulation Lab (COA Health Sciences) located in Elizabeth City, NC. Please note: Only subcontractors who have been prequalified by Barnhill will be able to submit a Bid.

The project consists of the new construction of a 38,000-sf, 2-story expansion to the existing Owens Health Sciences Center and will house classrooms, labs, and a simulation lab. The site is just over just over 4.5 acres and is located on an active campus. This new construction will be a steel structure with a brick and metal panel veneer, curtainwall, and storefront glazing with a PVC roof membrane.

Principal trade and specialty contractors are solicited for the following Bid Packages:

BP0100: General Trades

BP0105: Final Cleaning

BP0390: Turnkey Concrete

BP0400: Turnkey Masonry

BP0500: Structural Steel & Misc. Steel

BP0740: Roofing

BP0750: Metal Panels

BP0790: Caulking / Caulking

BP0800: Turnkey Doors/Frames/Hardware

BP0840: Glass & Glazing

BP0925: Drywall

BP0960: Resilient Flooring

BP0980: Acoustical Ceilings

BP0990: Painting & Wallcovering

BP1005: Toilet Specialties / Accessories / Division 10

BP1010: Signage

BP1098: Demountable Partitions

BP1230: Finish Carpentry and Casework

BP1250: Window Treatment

BP1400: Elevators

BP2100: Fire Protection

BP2200: Plumbing

BP2300: HVAC

BP2600: Turnkey Electrical

BP3100: Turnkey Sitework

BP3290: Landscaping

Packages may be added and/or deleted at the discretion of the Construction Manager. Historically underutilized business firms are encouraged to complete participation submittals.

HUB/MWBE OUTREACH MEETING: Barnhill Building Group will be conducting a HUB/MWBE Informational Session. You are encouraged to attend the following session to learn more about project participation opportunities available to you. These seminars will help to: Learn about project and scope; Inform and train Minority/HUB contractors in preparation for bidding this project; Assist in registration on the State of North Carolina Vendor link; Stimulate opportunities for Networking with other firms. Location and time TBD. Please visit our planroom at for more information.

Interested contractors should submit their completed prequalification submittals, by July 22, 2024, to Meredith Terrell at or hardcopies can be mailed to Barnhill Contracting Company PO Box 31765 Raleigh, NC 27622 (4325 Pleasant Valley Road, NC 27612).



  • Glenn

    Fully applaud the efforts of all organizations looking to protect our beautiful ecosystems…What I can’t understand why so many in the area turn a blind eye to the ever increasing amounts of trash in our beaches, walking paths, roads, sounds…etc. EVERY day, three times a day I go for walks in our local neighborhood & ALWAYS pick up hands full of trash. I’ll see countless people, both locals & tourists, walking in front of me & I have NEVER seen anyone pick up one piece of trash even though there are always empty trash bins in front of homes. I’m sure many OBX residents & visitors do pick up trash…I’ve just never seen it happen. Thanks for the very informative articles!

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 9:56 am
  • Travis

    I was taking the long way south the other day, driving along NC 12 from Southern Shores to Manteo. While there are some of these McMansions in Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, for the most part those towns seems to have figured out how to check the development of these monster homes. The mix of architecture, styles and overall appearance contributes in no small part to the “look” of our beach community. But also, the smaller homes mean fewer people are here to create the impact on the environment these articles are talking about.

    Meanwhile, Kill Devil Hills has completely lost its mind. The most recent structures are huge, ugly and lack any kind of aesthetic. Even the McMansions from 10 years ago at least tried to look halfway decent. These new homes are giant boxes maximizing the number of people they can cram into one building. Hideous. I don’t know who is building them. Saga? Stan White? Eddie Goodrich? Whoever is responsible should be ashamed. The houses scream “Greed”.

    Pushing Ecotourism is great, but as Nettles said some years back in a different article, the level of growth we’re seeing is not sustainable. Even if every one of our visitors was an ecotourist or just mindful of the Outer Banks environment, that’s still millions of extra footprints on an area that is already well trodden.

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 11:14 am
  • Bassman

    Yes Glenn, other people pick up trash too, why do most of your posts go off topic about how you find and pick up trash?

    I especially like when I go metal detecting along the areas the locals surf fish and uncover treasure troves of all their beer cans they buried. Let’s not make everything a tourist issue.

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 4:34 pm
  • wild horse tours?

    … “ecotourism activities—such as birding festivals, dolphin-watch tours, and wild horse tours—have grown organically in the Outer Banks” …

    Wild horse tours are ecotourism? Really? These people are detached from reality.

    Having too many tourists and just trying to make them be kinder and gentler does not solve the problem. It’s the total number of people and the number of cars. We will still have too many tourists.

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 5:34 pm
  • Carova local

    Hard to watch horse tours say they care about the land and then drive into the dunes to turn around so they can get back to swarming the horses

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 5:38 pm
  • pj

    Travis..Im 1000% with you on Kill Devil Hills. What they have allowed happen there is shameful and disgusting. Greedy developers and some of the local leadership who got rich with developer money over the years (you know who you are!) have been and continue to be the “great Satans” to the decline of OBX quality of Life for decades and decades now. Kudos for the folks for trying but its way to little way to late!

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 6:20 pm
  • Mike

    Please clarify what is meant by “organic” growth versus “programatic” growth, as for example, how it might apply to birding. ???

    Tuesday, Nov 21 @ 7:43 pm
  • Czarina

    It’s great that this group wants to protect the Outer Banks. BUT, will the commissioners, planning boards, tourism board, and builders oblige? I have been vacationing here since 1970, and lived here since 2005. Obviously I have seen a lot of changes, many are not good. 1) the old Aquarium in Manteo used to have an erosion display, explaining how the beaches would disappear, the sound edge would keep moving westward, and at some point-the sound would disappear and OBX would be part of the mainland. Sadly, that display disappeared many years ago, which I felt was because of the commissioners, planning boards, tourism board, and builders. 2) I remember I could see Jockey’s Ridge (the 2nd hump, closest to the sound) over the 1st hump, from the highway. Haven’t been able to do that for years, and the reason is stated in this article. 3) it is very telling when the article states how many visitors OBX gets on a small plot of land. And yet, the commissioners, planning board, tourism board, and builders want to continue building mini-mansions and conference centers. Those new condos on Beach Road are disgusting! I truly hope this group can have an impact to save the OBX. Sadly, I am not optimistic. Money rules here.

    Wednesday, Nov 22 @ 5:08 am
  • Steven

    Once folks started calling this place OBnoXious, it was all downhill.
    Now businesses even use it in their name. Amusing to the point it’s sad.

    Wednesday, Nov 22 @ 6:17 am
  • charlie

    to Quote Reide Corbett..”we should be focused on satisfaction, not growth.”….

    Wednesday, Nov 22 @ 9:45 am
  • Obxserver

    Organic growth, programmatic growth, managed growth. What do they all have in common? GROWTH. Speaking of growth how about an in depth news article about the increase of @ 25% in occupancy taxes from December 31, 2019 to December 31 2020. This is an unprecedented and really almost incredible increase figuratively overnight. This increase was sustained through 2021 and 2022 and possibly 2023. Based on average daily visitor of 240.000 during the peak season in 2019 that would mean an additional 80,000 people in 2020. What impact did that have? Can it and will it be sustained? Where did all those people stay? Hypothesizing an average of 2 people per vehicle this means an additional 40,000 autos daily. Well that explains that! How much extra water per day? Poop per day? How many people just actually relocated to live here residentially and so don’t show up through increased occupancy tax collections? 10,000?
    It’s a basic principle of orienteering that to know where you are going you have to know where you are.

    Wednesday, Nov 22 @ 10:18 am