On a normal weekend this time of year, Fairfield Inn and Suites owner Arthur McPherson would look out and see his parking lot full of people making a final stop before heading to the Outer Banks for vacation.
But these are not normal times.
The coronavirus pandemic has ground travel to a halt and although the Outer Banks opened to visitors Saturday, McPherson said he and other lodging operators don’t know what to expect from this beach season.
Many tourists use Elizabeth City as a final stopping point on their way to the beach. The thinking is that beach-goers, especially those driving long distances, will stay the night in Elizabeth City, and maybe eat at a restaurant, before rising early the next morning to beat the rush of traffic that’s headed to the beach.
“Traditionally, that certainly has been our niche here in Elizabeth City, and just not for my hotel but our market in general,” McPherson said.
But will there be any traffic to beat to the beach this year?
McPherson said he doesn’t know what to expect.
Room bookings are way off from previous years, and McPherson feels it is probably the same at other hotels and bed and breakfasts across the city. He is holding out hope, however, that the uncertainty over the pandemic is causing people to wait longer — until closer to their week at the beach — to book a room.
“That is yet to be determined,” McPherson said. “We are seeing some bookings but nothing like we traditionally see. When people see that it (Outer Banks) will stay open, hopefully, we will reap the benefits of that.”
McPherson said his hotel is booked most Friday and Saturday nights during the peak of the summer season. To help ease traffic congestion heading to the Wright Memorial Bridge, the typical Saturday-to-Saturday Outer Banks rental option now includes Sunday-to-Sunday rentals and even a few Friday-to-Friday options.
“From late June to the end of August, we are usually completely full on Fridays and almost completely full on Saturdays,” McPherson said. “I just don’t know if we will have the season we are accustomed to having.”
Currituck Economic Development Director Larry Lombardi has been working with businesses helping to prepare for the return of visitors to the county’s Outer Banks. Despite the pandemic, he said there is an air of optimism about the coming summer season.
Currituck, along with Dare County, closed the Outer Banks to visitors and non-resident property owners back in March in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Both counties recently allowed non-resident property owners back in and visitors were being allowed to return beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday.
“Business owners are very excited and looking forward to having visitors, guests and vacationers to the Currituck Outer Banks,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi said most businesses that are allowed to open under Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 restrictions are open but he encourages visitors to bring as many supplies as possible, including paper goods and groceries, with them.
“This will help ease the pressures on the local grocery stores and will allow the families more time to enjoy the beach and the Corolla area,” Lombardi said.
Currituck Travel and Tourism Director Tameron Kugler said welcoming visitors again will be a boost for the county. Tourism in Currituck had a direct economic impact of $244 million in 2018, the last year that data is available, which is up over 70 percent from 2012.
“Tourism is our No. 1 economic driver, so when we have tourists back that is good for us,” Kugler said.
Currituck suspended its $2.6 million advertising budget when the pandemic hit but Kugler said the agency is advertising again, using a combination of digital, print and television media.
“Our current advertising message is that ‘we have missed you and can’t wait to have you back,’” Kugler said. “We are visually emphasizing our wide open beaches with plenty of space to safely distance. Our brand is one of pristine family-friendly beaches with wide open spaces to enjoy nature and history.”