With billions of dollars already lost, experts predict NC’s tourism economy won’t completely recover until 2023

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – North Carolina has lost billions of dollars in visitor spending since March. Experts don’t expect a full return to normal until 2023.

In a report this week, VisitNC said the state has lost $9 billion in visitor spending since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wit Tuttle, director of VisitNC, said that equates to $300 million in tax revenue that the state has lost.

“We were really blasted by this COVID situation,” said Tuttell, who also serves as the VP of Tourism and Marketing for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

After a dramatic drop in spending in the spring, Tuttell said leisure travel got a big boost this summer as people ventured outdoors during the pandemic.

“We had probably one of the strongest rebounds in the country as far as our tourism market in the summer. Part of that is people wanted to get outside and we had beautiful beaches they could go to. We had great trails and parks in the city, and wonderful mountains,” Tuttell said.

Tuttell said some areas of leisure travel have seen more visitors than in an average year.

However, Tuttell said leisure travelers don’t spend as much money as business travelers do.

“Businesses travel hasn’t come back. The meetings, events, sports events — those things haven’t come back. Unfortunately, those tend to be the bigger spending items. While we’ve gotten a lot of visitation back, we haven’t gotten a lot of spending back,” he said.

David Palumbo, general manager of the Marriott City Center in Raleigh, said they’ve taken a big hit with the loss of business travelers. He said that in mid-March, they had their first cancellation — a large group staying in the hotel for a conference at the nearby convention center in downtown.

“Things obviously snowballed very quickly. By the middle of April, we had to make the difficult decision to suspend operations,” Palumbo said.

Although they reopened in July, following safety guidelines with staff trained on new protocols, Palumbo said they are at less than 20 percent occupancy compared to 80 percent occupancy this time last year.

He’s had to let several staff members go as a result. At the hotel’s peak, it employed 172 full-time staff members. It currently has 30 full-time staff members, according to Palumbo.

“That’s 140-plus people just here in this one hotel that are struggling right now. We need to figure out how we can attack these restrictions or lessen these restrictions in a way that allows for safe social distancing but also allows folks some level of income,” he said.

According to Tuttell, experts predict small events and meetings will resume in the first quarter of 2021, although he thinks it could take longer.

He said a “full return to normal” including large events and international travel won’t resume until 2023.

Tuttell said a big part of that is because of the shift in how business is being conducted during the pandemic.

“Once we can really travel, how many of those business trips will happen? How many companies will say, ‘Well you can do that virtually,” Tuttell said.

Tuttell encouraged travelers to continue to visit the state’s parks, beaches, and mountains even during the winter months. He said NC Outside is a great resource to help people explore the outdoors.

He also suggested visiting restaurants and businesses that have taken the Count on Me NC pledge to follow COVID-19 safety protocols.

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