Tourism Officials: Hurricane Hurt Already Struggling Travel Season

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Aug 7, 2020
Tourism officials are hopeful momentum will return for the rest of the summer tourism season following the impacts of Hurricane Isaias, which hit the region as a Category 1 storm earlier this week and caused damage in parts of Brunswick County.

Before the storm, tourism in the Southport and Oak Island areas was starting to see business build up this season, said Karen Sphar, executive vice president of the Southport-Oak Island Area Chamber of Commerce.

Across the Cape Fear region, the hospitality industry has struggled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virus-related restrictions are still in place for some types of attractions, entertainment venues and movie theaters in phase two of the statewide plan for reopening the economy, which has been extended until September.

"We’re just starting to hit a good stride and feel good, and here comes [Hurricane] Isaias," Sphar said. "It’s like just when you try to get some momentum going, something else stands in your way.”

But while some businesses suffered major damage -- such as the Southport Marina and in parts of Oak Island -- there are still a lot of businesses that have reopened since the storm, which made landfall near Ocean Isle Beach late Monday night.

"It's not that the entire city of Southport has closed down. It is actually opened up ... you will see it continue to open up and improve there. So we just need a lot of people to support those businesses because they are going to be missing the visitors that Oak Island is losing," Sphar said.

Oak Island has issued a mandatory evacuation for all nonresidents for certain parts of the island severely damaged by the storm, with part of the beach closed and a curfew in place for the restricted areas.

"It’s just something else that we have to overcome. And we’ve done it before, so we will just dig in and do it again," Sphar said. 

Tourism officials are still assessing the damages of Hurricane Isaias on businesses. Sunset Beach and Caswell Beach were open not long after the storm passed, said Mitzi York, executive director of the Brunswick County Tourism Development Authority.

"The level of impact did vary across the county," York said. "The reopening is happening quickly, and we will be able to invite visitors back."

"I think that being a coastal destination, particularly being a destination made up of small towns, we are the type of place that for people who were traveling during the pandemic, we are the type of place that they would gravitate to: outdoors, beaches, small towns -- those are the types of places people are feeling the most comfortable with," she added.

Visitor confidence is key to whether or not people will travel and where they will go, said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"The biggest thing that hospitality businesses can do is to ensure visitor safety. This means implementing additional cleaning protocols, distancing measures and mask policies," Hufham said. "Visitors are researching before they travel, searching for businesses that are taking extra safety precautions. As such, businesses need to make sure their websites reflect these added safety measures."

Hufham said it is difficult to tell what the remaining summer business will look like.

"Weekends throughout the summer have been good for business with the weekdays definitely being slower than in years past," she said. "Even in normal years when public schools return in mid- to late-August, tourism slows down a bit.

"Labor Day weekend is typically strong for us, especially if the weather is good. However, this year is an anomaly because of coronavirus and visitor sentiment fluctuations during the pandemic. While we hope to have a strong summer and fall, it will really depend on how safe visitors feel traveling, and of course, the weather," Hufham said.

Another storm on top of an already difficult summer tourist season will have an impact, she said. 

"Unfortunately this summer we will not be able to determine whether any losses are due to the storm or to COVID-19 concerns. We have no benchmark for comparing pandemic impacts on summer tourism," Hufham said.

The Wilmington and Beaches CVB is encouraging its area hospitality partners to participate in a safety initiative taking place statewide through Visit NC called, "Count On Me NC."

The “Count On Me NC" initiative is a free COVID-19 safety training program designed to reassure visitors that businesses are taking extra precautions, said Connie Nelson, spokeswoman for the Wilmington and Beaches CVB.

Once businesses complete the online training, they receive a certificate and toolkit with "Count On Me NC" logos and other visuals that can be posted online and at the business.

Visit NC recently launched the massive statewide public service campaign "to promote the initiative so we anticipate that more visitors will continue to seek out Count On Me NC businesses," Nelson said.

"At present, nearly 90 travel partners have completed the training," Nelson said, "but we are hopeful that more of our local hospitality businesses will take advantage of this free training."
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