Visitor spending increased in Pender County for 2017, with a growth rate that outpaced Brunswick and New Hanover counties, and even the state. The statistics released recently by Visit North Carolina revealed the 5.14 percent increase over 2016.
So how did that spending soar? Pender County officials point to a number of prominent factors including the area’s attractions and natural resources. They also point to something that adversely affected visitor spending in 2016.
Hurricane Matthew caused visitor spending to dip in 2016 by about $200,000, said Pender County Tourism Director Tammy Proctor. Hurricane Florence is expected to have similar impacts.
“We will have a loss of revenue in tourism,” Proctor said. “This will be more harmful to our tourism industry.”
In 2017, visitors to Pender County spent a little over $97 million. Spending was $92.31 million the previous year and $92.34 in 2015.
In comparison, New Hanover County increased a little more than 4 percent in 2017, to $578 million. Brunswick County was up 3.36 percent, with visitors spending at $562 million in 2017.
The visitor spending figures come from a yearly study commissioned by Visit North Carolina, which is part of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, and conducted by the U.S. Travel Association.
“Topsail Beach won a national award for their beach nourishment (program) [and] they were named one of the top five beaches in the country,” Proctor said about some of the draws last year.
Topsail Beach also was voted Best Little Beach Town in the USA by TripAdvisor readers in 2016. The Pender County beach was “named among the top 10” in USA Today, Proctor added.
Also behind the increase, said officials, is the county’s array of visitor attractions, offering enticement beyond the area’s beaches.
Among the most popular is the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City. It’s ranked No. 2 – eclipsed only by Topsail Island – on a list of “29 things to do in Surf City,” on TripAdvisor.com.
“People want to see this endangered species and when you take a look at them, you just fall in love with them,” Proctor said. “They’re one of the largest on the East Coast that’s dedicated to the care of sea turtles…. and the fact that it’s run by volunteers, people just love that.”
Like the sea turtle hospital (as it’s referred to), Pender County’s historic attractions are another draw – and one that extends beyond the high summer beach season. Promoting an extended visitors season has been a successful marketing strategy, according to tourism officials.
History buffs are drawn to Pender County’s colonial background and Moore’s Creek National Battlefield, while others flock to the Missiles and More Museum.
“With us being the birthplace of rocket technology, families love visiting and learning about the rocket technology that was developed here,” Proctor said.
Visit North Carolina’s annual visitor spending study also shows that Pender County generated $4.67 million in state tax revenue, through state sales and excise taxes on personal and corporate income. An estimated $6.81 million in local taxes was generated from sales and property tax revenue from travel-generated and travel-supported businesses.
New Hanover County's travel industry payroll was $141 million in 2017, up nearly 8.7 percent from the previous year. New Hanover's state tax receipts grew 3.5 percent to $28 million, while its local receipts grew nearly 5.8 percent to about $23 million.
In Brunswick County, state tax receipts grew to $26 million for a nearly 2.6 percent increase and local receipts were up nearly 5 percent to about $34.6 million, while its travel industry payroll grew by almost 7.7 percent to $113 million.
The highest growth in visitor spending in 2017 took place in Polk County, where the $100 million Tryon International Equestrian Center opened in 2015. Spending there grew by 8.3 percent to more than $30 million.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced in May that visitors to North Carolina set a record for spending in 2017. The $23.99 billion in total spending represented an increase of 4.2 percent from 2016.
-Cece Nunn contributed to this article.