Paradigm shift recommended to sustain future of tourism on the Outer Banks

Published 12:17 pm Saturday, August 14, 2021

History has proven that the Outer Banks has been a highly sought-after vacation spot for visitors from around the world for many, many years. Tourists have come back time and time again to experience the natural resources, national parks, preserves, local businesses, restaurants and overall culture of these beaches. Such an incredible level of demand has, over time, put a strain on sustainable tourism in the area.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States, social and economic changes have taken place. The Outer Banks was hit hard after opening its bridges back up in May 2020. A record number of visitations took place and area just wasn’t ready for it.

Recognizing the need for a change and a call to action to receive more insight into this ever-growing issue, NC State College of Natural Resources has partnered with Twiddy & Company to launch the Lighthouse Fund for Sustainable Tourism on the Outer Banks. This fund has allowed Dr. Whitney Knollenberg, an assistant professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at NC State’s College of Natural Resources, to spend two months in Corolla while researching ways in which sustainable tourism can thrive on the Outer Banks.

“Everybody in this room is wiped out, on the very tight edge of an economy that has never been more explosive in terms of its potential and at the same time, we reconcile that our community and infrastructure has never been under such strain,” said Clark Twiddy, president of Twiddy & Company, during Knollenberg’s presentation on her findings at Jennette’s Pier on July 28.

Knollenberg spent two months of the peak summer season on the Outer Banks talking with 40 tourism stakeholders about the impacts of tourism on the place they call home. Everyone from frontline workers, business owners, healthcare representatives, finance officers, community leaders and more from the four-wheel drive area all the way down through Ocracoke shared their thoughts with Knollenberg on the impacts they face every day. “This yielded great insight,” said Knollenberg.

She noted that workforce shortages and the lack of available, affordable housing were two factors that were driving sustainable tourism far into the ground. There has been a 26% increase in visitation to national parks this summer, which leads to greater impacts on the natural and social resources of the Outer Banks. Longer lines to eat at restaurants, constant traffic, later check-in times and even days that no one wants to deal with going to the grocery store have all negatively impacted the economy and those who have been visiting for so long.

“All of these challenges, underscored by the potential to leave money on table,” said Knollenberg, “further challenged by experiences people come to know and love in the Outer Banks that have changed.”

After speaking with the community and experiencing the rapidly increasing need for change, Knollenberg shared her recommendations, both short- and long-term.

“We need to center our efforts on sustaining the workforce,” she started. Knollenberg recognized the need to make the Outer Banks community one that people want to live. By offering a safe, welcoming atmosphere for those that live on the beach year-round, there will be more individuals who choose to volunteer their time and perhaps run as leaders of the towns. This will not only sustain tourism, but sustain the communities themselves.

Knollenberg’s next short-term recommendation was to reach out to other communities facing the same challenges. Parts of Hawaii and Colorado have experienced similar strains on their economies and infrastructures, especially after the pandemic. Perhaps sharing ideas can lead to solutions for the long-term.

In the next two to five years, Knollenberg suggested setting up clear lines of communication between decision makers and stakeholders. “This will greatly help to bring people to table and make sure the feel voice is being heard,” Knollenberg said after hearing “great ideas” from members of the community who have not felt like their thoughts have been heard.

After hearing from the community, Knollenberg shared there was a “constant refrain of things need to change. We need to think about things differently.” What the Outer Banks needs, as per her recommendation, is a paradigm shift.

“We need to change the frame of reference and start thinking of . . . not just tourism challenges, but community challenges.” The way to accomplish this, she said, was to start thinking about destination management. “We need to focus on balancing all those wonderful opportunities: growth of visitation, environmental responsibility and quality of life while still ensuring that residents and those dealing with negative impacts of tourism every day are engaged and participate in development and benefit from tourism.”

Knollenberg recommended establishing a role in the community; having someone come in and start making sure that communication is established and focus is set on bringing tourism back to sustainable levels while ensuring the community is prospering from the impacts. “Someone that can help bring the pieces together.”

While working towards her masters at ECU in sustainable tourism, Knollenberg said she worked on a project based in Currituck County. This was back in 2010. Watching the community change completely over the past 11 years, she noted how important finding a solution to a longtime problem was. “It’s so fragile,” she said to The Coastland Times after her presentation. “I am a problem-solver, so I hope to be able to help.”

As for the most important factor Knollenberg feels this community needs to focus on to ensure a healthy economy and a welcoming place for residents, her answer was simple: focus on the consequences of the decisions that are made. “We need to be thinking long-term and wisely of how our decisions are going to affect this community.”

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