Trying to predict how the state's tourism industry will fare this summer is a bit like spending an afternoon fishing off the Kure Beach Pier.
“You don't know what you're going to get,” said Leroy Bryant, a correctional officer who drove down midweek from Fayetteville with his son, Mark, to see what was biting.
With the economy in recession, many who work in the industry say they feared the worst as Memorial Day unofficially kicked off the summer travel season: empty hotel rooms, empty restaurant tables, empty pockets. But early indicators suggest that while travelers may wait until the last minute to hand over money for reservations and will cut back on spending where they can, they're still planning to hit the road. To encourage that vagabond spirit, businesses are offering special deals and adding free attractions.
“We, like everybody else, are feeling the pinch,” said Lynn Minges, executive director of the state's tourism division. “The travel industry is certainly not immune to the recession.”
Minges projects tourism spending in North Carolina will suffer a slight dip this year. That would be the first down year for spending since 2001 and only the second decline since 1990. Last year, tourists spent a record $16.9 billion in the state, according to a study by the U.S. Travel Association. That includes what they paid for gas, which was $4 a gallon last June.
Part of the concern this year is that from 60 percent to 70 percent of the state's tourism revenue comes from out-of-state visitors. Many of them are business travelers whose employers may be rethinking planned meetings and conferences this year. Others may decide to vacation in their home state or simply at home because of worries about jobs and money.
At the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which currently offers half-day train rides at $49 for adults and $29 for children, the one-two punch of an uncommonly wet spring and a full-blown recession has depressed ticket sales by 12 percent so far this year. Kim Albritton, vice president and general manager, frets about what that means for this summer, which accounts for about half of annual revenue.
Adding to the uncertainty is that the railroad, like many in the tourist industry, is seeing more patrons delaying their travel plans until the 11th hour. Albritton estimates that about 35 percent of the railroad's business is walk-up traffic this year, up from 15 percent to 20percent a year ago.
Businesses are preparing for the more tight-fisted traveler. The upscale Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa in Asheville has assembled special holiday packages; complimentary concerts are included in the price of a room. Next up for the Fourth of July: “American Idol” alumnus Bo Bice.
The gift shop at the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is stocking fewer pricey items, such as $500 Lionel locomotives, and more $14.99 T-shirts. Yellow Rose Realty in Bryson City, which handles rentals for more than 70 mountain cabins, has been offering discounts. Through June 15, the agency is offering four nights for the price of three.
“We're wheeling and dealing,” said Johnny Ensley, Yellow Rose's co-owner. “Everybody out there is offering specials. ... People are looking for a bargain.”
The Duplin Winery in Rose Hill, just off Interstate 40 in Duplin County, relies heavily on tourist traffic going to or from the beaches and Wilmington to support its retail store. Some days, said retail manager Jo Rhodes, 500 people stop by to tour the winery, sit at the bar for tastings and maybe have lunch in the bistro. The winery recently added live music from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays, “so people can kind of make a day of it,” Rhodes said. “Vacations can be expensive. You can come here and really enjoy yourself without spending a lot of money.”
Sales of Duplin's relatively low-cost wines have actually been up in recent months, Rhodes said.
“I think in times of trouble, people like to have a glass of wine,” she said.
Free or low-cost attractions are seeing an increase in attendance.
The Airborne and Special Operations Museum in downtown Fayetteville charges nothing to let people walk through a section of a C-47, a re-created village in war-torn Normandy, or any of its other exhibits that tell the evolution of the military's parachute and glider-borne troops. The nonprofit museum, owned by the Army, is supported by donations.
“Attendance is up. Donations are down,” said Paul Galloway, the museum's executive director.
A larger-than-average crowd of about 5,000 visitors came through the museum over Memorial Day weekend, Galloway said.
North Carolina's state parks, which are free or charge $5 per carload, have logged 3.2 million visitors this year through April, a 15 percent increase over last year.
“Our rangers will tell you that any time things get tough for people, they tend to look to state parks for recreation,” said state parks spokesman Charlie Peek.
Betty and Fred Johnson of Sanford brought their 17-foot travel trailer to Carolina Beach State Park campground just before Memorial Day expecting to stay for four or five days.
“We liked it so much, we stayed a week,” said Betty Johnson.
The couple, who share a retirement account and a sense of wanderlust, drive older-model cars and don't eat out much, saving their money for travel.
“Travel is a priority for us,” Fred Johnson said, taking a break from tinkering with the trailer's tiny gas stove. “It's an important part of our lives.”
Businesses all along the coast are hoping that vacations are still considered vital to most people's lives. North Carolina's beach communities, which tend to be drive-to destinations, expect to benefit from the drop in gas prices to $2.40 a gallon now.
The 51st Annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament is expecting a strong turnout when it opens Friday in Morehead City, said tournament director Crystal Watters. The fish-fest, which raises money for charity, may draw more smaller boats than big gas guzzlers this year, but judging by slip reservations at local marinas, the tournament should get its usual 150 to 200 boats, Watters said.
Farther north, in Waterside Theater in Manteo where The Lost Colony has just begun its 72nd season, producer Carl Curnutte said overall sales are slightly down.
“The Lost Colony started in 1937, at the end of the Great Depression, and visitors still came,” Curnutte said.
Michael McGowan, who with his wife, Shelly, owns Michael's Seafood Restaurant and Catering in Carolina Beach, said his place was slammed over Memorial Day weekend, with more customers than last year. Even with the addition of a new outdoor patio, there was an hour wait for dinner.
In what may be another measure of how the economy is doing, McGowan said that when he posted a single job opening for a bartender, more than 100 people applied.