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Rowan County tourism numbers down significantly during pandemic-plagued 2020

SALISBURY — Visitor spending in Rowan County was down 28.8% in 2020, falling to $139.9 million from the record high total of $196.45 million in 2019, according to a report released by the North Carolina Department of Commerce on Thursday.

The decrease in tourist dollars spent in Rowan County mirrored an expected trend seen throughout North Carolina during a pandemic-ravaged year when many were sheltering in place for months. 

“It reiterates a lot of the facts and data and previous information that 2020 was, at least in my professional career, the worst year I’ve ever seen in the hospitality sector,” said James Meacham, head of the Rowan County Tourism Development Authority.

Visitors both domestic and international spent $19.96 billion statewide in 2020, a decrease of 32% from the $29 billion spent in 2019. While 86 counties saw visitor spending decline, 14 counties including Warren (+32%), Greene (+21%) and Yancey (+16%) saw their visitor spending increase.

“I’m not surprised there were a few pockets in North Carolina that were up such as the mountains and the coast,” Meacham said. “People sort of flocked toward the end of 2020 toward outdoor recreational opportunities.”

The top counties for visitor spending are some of the state’s largest, including Mecklenburg ($2.8 billion), Wake ($1.7 billion) and Buncombe ($1.5 billion). However, those counties also experienced some of the most significant decreases in tourism spending. Mecklenburg’s spending decreased by a whopping 51.0%, Wake’s dropped 42.6% and Buncombe’s decreased by 34.9%.

The decrease in visitor spending in Rowan County in 2020 was the first regression seen in over a decade. 

“Our last down year was during the recession in the late 2000s,” Meacham said. “We’d had 10 consecutive years of growth usually somewhere between 5 or 5.5 to 6%. We were one of the stalwarts having that much growth. We didn’t pull all the way back to 2008-09 numbers, but a 30% drop off of about $200 million a year is a $60 million drop. That’s pretty substantial.”

The report, which was commissioned by Visit North Carolina and is published on an annual basis, showed tourists in Rowan County spent $51.2 million in 2020 on food and beverages, by far the most spent in any particular category. Additionally, visitors spent $34.8 million on transportation, $26.7 million on lodging, $15.4 million on recreation and $11.8 million on retail.  

Meacham said this is the first year those specific numbers have been included in the report, so it’s not possible to determine how they compare to years prior.

The tourism industry in Rowan County lost 228 jobs from 2019 to 2020, falling from 1,530 people employed to 1,302, about a 15% reduction in the workforce. Tourism jobs last year accounted for $44 million in income. 

Rowan County tourism in 2020 generated $6.6 million in state taxes and $6.5 million in local taxes, creating $91.74 in savings per resident.

With many major tourist draws like Thomas the Train at the NC Transportation Museum and the Autumn Jubilee at Dan Nicholas Park have returned this year, Meacham said he expects a slight rebound when the report for 2021 is unveiled next fall.

“We’re obviously expecting 2021 to be substantially better than 2020,” Meacham said. “However, we’re not expecting 2021 to get back to 2019 levels as far as total economic impact. We’ve seen improvement over the summer and into the fall in terms of overnight lodging, but we’re still seeing some softness in spending.”

However, Meacham said he expects tourism drivers that take place inside to continue to struggle.

“We think there could be some challenges for indoor events moving forward and that’s something I think as an industry as a whole we’re going to have to address,” Meacham said. “There’s been a good rebound in outdoor activity and leisure, in folks wanting to enjoy restaurants and eat outdoors in food and beverage. I think the indoor events and activities will be some of the later ones to recover and I think that’ll largely be driven by the health picture.”

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