RALEIGH – Statewide, the tourism industry took a big hit in 2020, new data from a research study conducted by the U.S. Travel Association found.

Across North Carolina, employment in tourism dropped by 26% in 2020 compared to 2019, with total employment in the sector at 178,685 the report found.

And statewide, tourism spending dropped by 31.7% in 2020 compared to 2019, as tourism spending totaled $19.96 billion.

North Carolina still ranked fifth nationally for visitation, however, according to Visit North Carolina Director Wit Tuttell.

“Despite this report’s bad news, we’re encouraged that North Carolina ranks fifth among states for visitation,” said Tuttell.  “This is a position of strength for rebuilding our tourism economy.”

But the county-level data, released this week, shows that while the state’s urban areas, including Mecklenburg County and Wake County, saw dramatic decreases in visitor spending and tourism industry employment, some of the state’s more rural counties saw the number of jobs increase in 2020 compared to 2019 along with increased tourism spending.

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In fact, the report found that in 20 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, employment that was found to be related to visitor spending increased.

Those counties are: Warren, Greene, Clay, Stokes, Ashe, Yancey, Alleghany, Pender, Macon, Northampton, Jones, Polk, Rutherford, Montgomery, Tyrrell, Dare, Carteret, Madison, Currituck and Swain.

On the other hand, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Wake, Durham, Orange, Cabarrus, and Forsyth Counties had the largest decreases in direct tourism employment, the report found.

Mecklenburg County still led the state in total spending, with $2.8 billion, but suffered a 51% reduction in visitor spending compared to the prior year and 45% reduction in tourism industry jobs, according to the data.

“It is difficult to find an economic sector that did not suffer in the pandemic’s first year, given the reluctance of people to gather as well as the numerous businesses that were closed,” said Dr. Mike Walden, an economist and a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University.  “Interestingly, some rural counties experienced increases in tourist spending, likely due to people in rural counties feeling safer about travel away from home.”

The report found that visitor spending increased in 14 counties in 2020 compared to 2019: Warren (+32%), Greene (+21%), Yancey (+16%), Clay (+14%), Stokes (+11%), Polk (+9%), Northampton (+9%), Pender (+8%), Ashe (+6%), Alleghany (+4%), Rutherford (+4%), Jones (+4%), Currituck (+3%) and Tyrrell counties (+2%).

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Tourism spending in the first half of 2021

Walden noted that there is also “distinct improvement” in employment in two sectors that would include tourism-related jobs in 2021 compared to 2020.  In the arts/entertainment/recreation sector, said Walden, spending is up 18% in the first six months of 2021 compared to the same time period in 2020, and in the food/accommodation sector, spending is up 28%.

For the first sector, arts/entertainment/recreation, spending in 2021 is 15% lower than spending levels were in 2019, Walden said.  But in food/accommodation, spending has increased in 2021 compared to the first six months of 2019, up by 3%, Walden said.

“Overall, the conclusion is tourism is moving toward normalcy, with some sectors fully back but others not quite fully back,” said Walden.  “With many jobs associated with tourism at the lower end of the pay scale, hiring is likely a major challenge for many firms.”

That may result in businesses continuing to operate with fewer workers, said Walden. “Spending at North Carolina’s great tourist sites and venues will recover and grow, but how tourist services are delivered to future customers will be very different,” he noted.

The data is available through a report, “The Economic Impact of Travel on North Carolina Counties,” and is available on the Visit North Carolina website.

The study was prepared for Visit North Carolina by Tourism Economics, according to a statement from Visit North Carolina.