2021 Visitor Spending Increases in All 100 NC Counties

RALEIGH, N.C. (Aug. 17, 2022) — Recovery in visitor spending was felt statewide in 2021 with all 100 counties seeing increases, according to data released Wednesday by the N.C. Department of Commerce. The preliminary findings from an annual study commissioned by Visit North Carolina, a unit of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, reflect the economic impact of tourism on local economies across the state.

“The strong economic results for one of our most vital industries speak to the resilience of our local tourism partners and to the state’s enduring appeal,” said North Carolina Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders. “We celebrate the qualities that make North Carolina an attractive destination and are inspired by the people who provide visitors to our state an outstanding travel experience.”

The visitor spending study, commissioned by Visit NC and conducted by Tourism Economics in collaboration with the U.S. Travel Association, provides preliminary estimates of domestic and international traveler expenditures as well as employment, payroll income, and state and local tax revenues directly generated by these expenditures. The statistical model draws on detailed data from Visit NC as well as data derived from federal and state government sources, nationally known private and non-profit travel organizations, and other travel industry sources.

Key findings from the study:

  • Great recovery was seen statewide compared to 2020 with visitor spending across the state up 45 percent. Each of the state’s 100 counties experienced increases in spending from 2020 to 2021.
  • Mecklenburg County received $4.1 billion (plus 46 percent) in traveler expenditures to lead all 100 counties. For the first time, Buncombe County ranked second with $2.6 billion (plus 81 percent), followed by Wake County with $2.3 billion (plus 40 percent), Dare County with $1.8 billion (plus 30 percent) and Guilford County with $1.3 billion (plus 52 percent) in visitor spending. 
  • Top percentage spending increases from 2020 were Gates County (plus 83 percent), Buncombe County (plus 81 percent), Beaufort County (plus 71 percent), Moore County (plus 70 percent) and Alexander County (plus 68 percent).
  • Seventy-five counties had 2021 spending that topped 2019’s record sums. Four of these counties had spending up 50 percent or more from two years ago: Warren County (plus 68 percent), Stokes County (plus 66 percent), Madison County (plus 59 percent) and Alexander County (plus 57 percent).
  • Mecklenburg County had the largest number of direct tourism employees (28,438), an increase of nearly 6 percent from 2020.  Three other counties had more than 10,000 direct tourism employees: Wake (21,357, plus 23 percent), Buncombe (18,278, plus 31 percent) and Dare (12,295, plus 4 percent). 
  • Top counties for percentage increases in tourism employment were Buncombe (plus 31 percent), Gates (plus 25 percent), Wake (plus 23 percent), Cabarrus (plus 21 percent) and Alexander (plus 20 percent).

As previously reported, domestic travel statewide reached new heights in 2021, though international visitation lagged. The spending total of $28.9 billion fell about 1 percent below the record set in 2019. The sum represents a 45 percent increase from pandemic-stricken 2020.

“Just as we’re gratified by the achievement statewide in 2021, the county-level report underscores the value of each destination,” said Wit Tuttell, director of Visit NC. “This is where travelers experience the state, from its natural beauty to the character of our people. It’s also the heart of the economic impact, the sustenance for thousands of businesses and local governments. We look forward to raising the arc even higher as we welcome more people to places they won’t find anywhere else.”

Full tables can be accessed at partners.visitnc.com/economic-impact-studies.



Margo Metzger

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