Carolina on their minds: N.C. tourism up this season

With July Fourth upon us, the beach is beckoning this year - good news for North Carolina's tourism industry.

AAA Carolinas predicts a 12 percent increase over last year in Fourth of July holiday travel. And along the coast, businesses say they're seeing more tourists than in the past two years.

Returning customers are cause for celebration at spots like Johnnie Mercer's Pier at Wrightsville Beach. "It's wall-to-wall just about all day long," said counter clerk Bob Wilson.

It's too early to tell whether the trend will carry through the summer - school hasn't been out that long. But Caroline Meeks, who runs Victory Beach Vacations in Carolina Beach, said her rentals recently jumped again after a strong early spring, then a lull in May.

"If I look at the numbers for the whole year, we are up," Meeks said. "Unfortunately, some of our reservations are from the Gulf Coast. People are saying they had to cancel their reservations there and make new ones."

Like it did last summer, the company is still getting a lot of last-minute reservations, Meeks said. Customers also are asking for shorter rentals.

"We've adjusted," she said, by cutting required lengths of stay and by staffing the office until 9 p.m. "If the mom says, 'OK, we can go. Let's see if we can find a place,' and they want to go tomorrow morning and it's 8 o'clock on Thursday, you want to have somebody there to answer the phone."

This year, Meeks and other rental agents say, owners have not had to cut rates to entice customers, as they did in the summers of 2009 and 2008.

"We haven't had to discount because we've been so busy," she said.

Rentals up

Jim Foster of Foster Rentals & Realty in Atlantic Beach estimates his business is up at least 15 percent over last year. He rents condominiums to a customer base that includes people from Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. This year, he said, he's had one client from Alabama.

"I think that was a direct result of the oil spill," Foster said. "They lived down there and wanted to come here instead. They said it was the first time they had been on our coast."

Claire Aubel, spokeswoman for the N.C. Maritime Museums, said the museums at Southport and Hatteras have seen more visitors compared to the first three weeks of June 2009. Only the museum in Beaufort, traditionally the busiest of the three, is off a bit from last year.

The mountains

The Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau has seen an increase in tourism, something it attributes to consumers investing more faith in the economy.

The bureau reported a 5.9 percent increase in April from the previous year and a 3.2 percent increase in May from the previous year.

But hotels in the area, such as the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, report flat occupancy rates compared to last summer. The Biltmore Estate saw a decrease in visitation of about 4 percent this June compared to June 2009. Officials attributed this to the residual impact of the closing of Interstate 40 from October through April as well as the economy. Observer staff writer Danielle Kucera contributed