Tourism at a crossroads on the Outer Banks

By on November 22, 2023

Addressing the impacts of visitor traffic could ease tensions between tourists and residents. (File photo credit: Kip Tabb)

By Brian Tress | Outer Banks Voice
(Third 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 benefits to the community.)

The Long-Range Tourism Management Plan (LTRMP) recommends strengthening resident and visitor engagement, with specific tasks to achieve this goal. Several of these, which can be considered low-hanging fruit, are already underway—such as connecting visitors with area non-profits, investing in a “voluntourism” strategy, repurposing the LRTMP Task Force, and hiring a Community Engagement Manager.

Other elements are a bit more aspirational and long-term, such as expanding options for non-vehicular transportation to mitigate traffic gridlock and continuing to pursue development of an event center.  In any case, the plan has already done something important by acknowledging the overall chasm between residents and visitors, making recommendations that leverage the common needs between the two groups, and suggesting further ideas and actions to improve the situation.


The LRTMP acknowledges that tourism is not always looked upon kindly by full-time residents of the Outer Banks, with references to the negative impacts of tourism on everyday life—traffic, pedestrian safety, bad visitor behavior, crowds, trash and noise among other concerns—especially during the peak summer months. The plan also notes that residents understand the importance of tourism but want a better balance between the needs of visitors and residents.

Kim Sawyer, Executive Director of Roanoke Island Festival Park, believes that communication is key to success.  “All the plan’s objectives are worthy, but connecting the dots is most important.  Stakeholders and residents need to understand what the end-results will be for them, and how the benefit will be implemented.”  She adds, “If you are going to engage the community, you need to tell them what the tangible outcome-based action steps are.”

Jamie Chisolm, head of the Hotel Association, agrees. “I think that residents don’t understand what the Tourism Board does. I feel like residents don’t understand how occupancy tax is spent.  Having a community engagement arm of the Bureau will be helpful in general overall education and engagement.”

According to Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles, 25% of funds received by the Visitors Bureau are dedicated to infrastructure investment to address the impacts of tourism. “The Visitors Bureau has grant programs that have reinvested into the community over $20 million,” he says. “Almost every multi-use path here is partially due to us.”

In order to better communicate this kind of message and assist with implementation of the LRTMP, the Bureau hired Jeff Schwartzenberg as its first Community Engagement Manager. “Communication—to and from—is key,” says Schwartzenberg. “How many times do you need to hear something before it sinks in? Residents may be aware of something, but it needs to stay front of mind.” He is currently establishing the guidelines for how the 22-member LRTMP Task Force will transition to this implementation phase; residents will have a strong voice with four dedicated seats, one of which is reserved for a non-resident property owner.

Beyond engaging the local community in tourism industry initiatives, the plan emphasizes the importance of engaging visitors in what matters to the local community. Tim Cafferty, Dare County Tourism Board Chair, says, “We need to make sure visitors and residents understand each other.” He cites the traffic during peak season as something that should be a unifying nuisance for both residents and tourists. “Does every member of the family have to drive a vehicle to their vacation in the Outer Banks?  Maybe we need to get creative – we can limit the number of cars per house by issuing parking permits or writing it into the rental agreements.”

He prefers this kind of solution to the alternative, ongoing dissatisfaction, and sometimes hostility, among both residents and tourists. Grimacing, he recalls seeing a bumper sticker that said, “You’ve seen the beach, now go home”.  “Tourists are guests here,” he appeals passionately. “They don’t have to come, and they don’t have to come back.”

An effort is underway to connect visitors with the community via what is termed “voluntourism.”  According to Lee Nettles, “We want to shine a light on the 80 non-profits in the community to visitors—connecting the non-profits with our millions of visitors.”

Patty McKenna, Executive Director of the Outer Banks Relief Foundation, is already fielding calls from visitors who are planning their vacation and want to do volunteer work when they get here. According to McKenna, “It’s multigenerational – parents who want to give back and to introduce their kids to the Outer Banks.”  

Patty McKenna, Executive Director of the Outer Banks Relief Foundation, believes there are many opportunities for enriching voluntourism experiences in the Outer Banks. (Courtesy:  Brian Tress)

Although the Foundation—whose mission is to “ease financial burdens when tragedy strikes”—has not yet developed a formal voluntourism program, McKenna believes that opportunities for enriching and life-affirming experiences abound. “We could keep a list of houses that need to be painted and yards that need a clean-up,” she suggests.  “A family who is focused on a cancer battle could have their front porch decorated for the holidays.”

Tourism at a Crossroads

The LRTMP asks the all-important question—how can the Outer Banks be a better place to live and visit? The critical commonality between residents and visitors—many of whom have been coming here for decades, one generation after the other—is the goal to protect a place that they love.  As Lee Nettles puts it, “There is a commonality on how residents and visitors feel about this place—a common place to start from.  We need to discuss the things we have in common and how to get to a shared goal, even if there are different reasons for getting there.”

Brian Tress has been a consultant to the tourism and hospitality industry for the past 25 years, whose work and leisure time is a fusion of advising destinations on strategic issues and enjoying immersive travel experiences across the globe.  Brian is a freelance writer for the Voice covering multi-faceted issues related to tourism that intersect with the major themes of local life.

He is a proud resident of Kill Devil Hills, but he was first a tourist here.

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

SEE ALSO: PART ONE: Tourism at a crossroads on the Outer Banks First of a three-part series on the challenges and goals for managing tourism on the Outer Banks


  • Czarina

    Parking permits for private rental properties??? What a joke! Years ago, towns tried to limit sizes of houses being built and the courts basically said – private property, towns have no say. These mini-mansions fill up with cars for every spot,, and then some! Go back to trying to limit sizes of yet-to-be built houses. Otherwise, there will be nothing to help with traffic. The Banks is a finite area!

    Wednesday, Nov 22 @ 6:51 pm
  • Jeff Walker

    Those Welcome to [popular tourist destination] Now Go Home stickers have been around for ages and aren’t unique to this place. Tourists in general have been awful all over the world the past few years.

    If the visitor’s bureau/real estate special interest group is genuinely concerned with managing tourism and not just skimming from occupancy tax revenues to build more fancy sidewalks and act like that’s gonna fix everything, they should reach out to other locations dealing with similar issues to trade notes and develop a set of best practices.

    Thursday, Nov 23 @ 5:24 am
  • Buck

    Hatteras Island: Saturation point pertaining to vehicles–we only have a 2 lane hwy –12–(no way to expand) -very heavy traffic for three seasons of year-lots of defensive driving-let the tourism on the island control itself-lots of day visitors(same north of Southern Shores)-still lots of area for growth–IE: cottages & commercial sites. Have lived in Avon for 27yrs. full time-great people and visitors.

    Friday, Nov 24 @ 11:03 am
  • PJ

    Good job by the reporter in this series. Czarina is spot on. If you never built another house the unreversible damage is already done. Limiting house sizes will never happen due to money involved. Studies and recommendations are just that. All this is same old same old yada yada. I am more interested in getting some of those creative stickers to pass around!

    Sunday, Nov 26 @ 7:52 am
  • M

    This is all crap, the officials across both Counties have had no long range planning and have let this area get out of control in every way and now they want to try to figure it out by adding more ways to bring in more people! We don’t need an event center, we are not Atlantic City. People come here for the natural beauty and the beach. There is no way to expand transportation on this island!

    Monday, Nov 27 @ 8:22 am
  • TourismBoardIsBetterThanLocals

    The Tourism Board doesn’t give 2 craps about a local. There one and only concern is to keep their high paying jobs! Money is spent to bring folks here.
    Honestly, I don’ t know of ONE tourist destination that has affordable housing. Not One. Affordable housing would be a waste of property and potential revenue.
    I am confused about the out of state “volunteers”. Who are these folks that pay thousands for a vacation, yet are volunteering? Where do they volunteer? someone is blowing smoke;

    Monday, Nov 27 @ 4:51 pm