Fort Fisher State Historic Site took bronze in a recent survey of most-visited North Carolina attractions, but another label gives it the gold. With 871,676 visitors in 2017, the tourist destination is No. 1 when it comes to the state’s historic sites, according to N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources officials.
Drawing nearly 42,000 more visitors last year than in 2016, the Kure Beach attraction’s draw provides the regional economy with a boost. While residents and tourists both flock to Fort Fisher State Historic Site, the majority are visitors, who tend to be here for more than the day, officials said.
“Fort Fisher [State Historic Site] has a significant effect on the local and regional economy simply because of its nature as a cultural tourism draw,” said Si Lawrence, Fort Fisher State Historic Site public information officer. “Studies have shown that cultural heritage tourism attracts tourists who stay longer and spend more on rental properties, hotels, restaurants, travel, and so forth.”
Comprised of a visitors center and museum, trails, fort remains, outdoor exhibits and more, the Fort Fisher State Historic Site is 18 miles south of Wilmington, on the beach at Federal Point. Its location is also attractive for destination weddings, which generate visitor spending and fuel the site’s “thriving special event rental program,” said Lawrence.
As for the local attraction’s popularity, Lawrence attributes it to tangible aspects, including programming and exhibits, but said uncontrollable factors – like Mother Nature – can have an impact, too. For example, a tropical storm and hurricane in 2016 that occurred during the visitor center’s roof repair temporarily closed the site to the public.
“We attribute the 2017 visitation increase to measurable factors such as successful programming, school and military groups, as well as general attendance by the visiting public,” Lawrence explained. “It was also a better year for us weather-wise, given our unique and appealing proximity to the coast.
“Even more subtle influences, like the mention of Fort Fisher in the feature film Lincoln has garnered interest in the site over the last year or so.”
With the attraction’s visitorship approaching the 1 million mark, $5 million of the state budget was earmarked to replace the site’s aging visitor center and museum. Opened in 1965, the present building was designed with fewer than 30,000 annual visitors in mind.
“As our most-visited historic attraction, this site, which was originally opened in the 1960s, deserves to have a facility our staff and our citizens can be proud of, and one that can accommodate the large number of visitors it sees every year,” N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Secretary Susi Hamilton said in a statement.
At 20,000 square feet, the future building will be nearly four times the size of the current one.
While a construction timeline is still in the works, highlights of the new visitor center include a 3,500-square-foot exhibit gallery, an auditorium and a classroom. Additional office space will better accommodate staff and a second project phase will involve “reconstruction of the fort’s land face,” said Lawrence.
“All of these elements will help us to accommodate more visitors and further our core mission of preserving and interpreting Fort Fisher for current and future generations.”
As Fort Fisher Historic Site’s expansion plans continue to emerge, smaller-scale updates are more common. From hosting public events – like the two-day Sesquicentennial Commemoration that drew 23,000 people in 48 hours, according to officials – to the addition of interpretive tour trail-markers, such changes can entice repeat visitors.
“Each year the site continues to add artifacts and make improvements to its exhibits and grounds,” said Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Connie Nelson. “We are excited about the site’s plans for a new and larger visitor center that will meet the site’s needs as visitation continues to grow.”