The state of tourism in North Carolina is either thriving or declining, depending on whom you ask and where you go.
Destinations like Wet ’n Wild Emerald Pointe in Greensboro and Concord Mills in Charlotte — among the state’s top tourist attractions — draw big numbers. In 2003, Concord Mills was No. 1 on the list with more than 15 million visitors, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce.
But while tourists spent more than $13 billion statewide in 2004, up 4.9 percent from 2003, the picture is a lot less rosy at places like state and private historic sites, museums and even parks, including Old Salem, Winston-Salem’s historic Moravian village. A nearly 14 percent decline in Old Salem’s visitation since 2002 led officials earlier this year to close the site on Mondays through Oct. 31— and maybe longer.
As Donald W. Patterson recently reported in the News & Record, visits to 21 of the state’s tourist sites, stretching from the mountains to the coast, dropped by 5.2 percent last year. And the decline, which mirrors a national trend, has held for the first two quarters of 2005.
That doesn’t bode well for our technology-driven, standardized test-obsessed age, when we need the substance, context and perspective that museums, historic sites and other such facilities provide more than ever.
A 2004 study from travel research firm D.K. Shifflet & Associates shows U.S. leisure travel hit record levels in 2003. But that same year, the number of people visiting historic sites and national or state parks hit a 10-year low. Cuts in park budgets, maintenance problems, and static offerings at the sites are among the reasons for shrinking numbers, said Doug Shifflet, the firm’s president.
Here in North Carolina, several historic sites, museums and parks, including the oft-neglected Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum in Sedalia, are sad examples of those kinds of woes. But Shiflett, along with state and local museum officials and tourism experts, also cites a factor for which there is no quick fix: an ever-growing list of other activities that people choose to pursue in their leisure time.
“It’s just a very competitive market, and trying to find out what people are looking to do and experience and spend their time and money on is a real challenge,” said Fred Goss, director of the Greensboro Historic Museum. The downtown museum has seen visitation rise by nearly 4,000 people in the last year, bucking the downward trend in attendance for comparable facilities.
Goss credits a renewed emphasis on corporate sponsorship for exhibits and partnering with other organizations for the museum’s success at getting more traffic — along with its hire of a full-time marketing and development director in 2004. But city support, upon which private facilities like Old Salem cannot depend, is key to the historic museum’s viability, providing 94 percent of its operating budget, Goss noted.
Just as there’s no single thing that pulls people away from some of the state’s most treasured tourist attractions, there’s no easy answer to bringing them back. But sites as diverse as Old Salem and the North Carolina Zoo, among others, must explore a variety of ways to better promote their worth — from marketing and programming that appeals to changing audiences, to strengthening corporate and other partnerships. They have too much to offer us all to fall into a state of obscurity.
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