NC in Focus: Economic Impact of Tourism

Tourism has significant economic impacts in North Carolina. Domestic (both in-state and out-of-state tourists) and international travelers directly spent $21 billion in the state in 2013 according to estimates from the North Carolina Department of Commerce. These expenditures generated nearly 207,000 jobs and $4.8 billion in payroll income for North Carolina residents and $3.2 billion in tax revenue for federal, state, and local governments.

While tourism is vital to the state, its impacts differ by county. Mecklenburg is the state’s most populous county; more than 1 million individuals, or about 10% of North Carolina’s residents, call Mecklenburg home. But Mecklenburg has an even greater share of direct tourism expenditures. In 2013, Mecklenburg received $4.6 billion in direct expenditures from tourism, representing 23% of all county tourism expenditures.

With the exception of Dare County (#4), most of the counties with the highest total direct tourism expenditure are also among the most populous. After Mecklenburg, Wake ($1.9B), Guilford ($1.2B), Dare ($953M), and Buncombe ($901M) have the highest tourism expenditures. But absolute expenditures are not be the best way to capture the relative impact of tourism on the county.

Relative impact of tourism can be measured in multiple ways. For example, one might be interested in the share of local jobs directly created by tourism expenditures. Below, I account for the size of the underlying permanent population relative to the direct tourism expenditures by highlighting the 10 counties with the largest per capita impact of tourism. That is, the estimated direct tourism expenditure in 2013 divided by the estimated 2013 resident population.

2013 Top 10 NC Counties_Tourism Expenditures per Capita

Per capita tourism expenditures ranged from a low of $188 per person in Camden County to nearly $27,300 per person in Dare County. The median county received $1,161 per resident in direct tourism expenditures.

The counties in the top 10 for per capita tourism expenditures highlight the importance of tourism to western and coastal counties. Four coastal counties are on the list (Dare, Hyde, and Currituck, which together contain the Outer Banks, and Carteret), as are four mountain counties (Swain, Avery, Macon, and Watauga). Mecklenburg (#6) is the only county with a large metropolitan area to make the top 10. Moore, home to Pinehurst, is the only other Piedmont county in the top 10.

Per capita tourism revenues remain high for Buncombe (#13 with $3,640), Guilford (#18 with $2,380), and Wake (#26 with $1,930), but the overall impact is reduced after accounting for county population size.

Note: NC Commerce only estimates the direct impact of domestic tourism at the county level. $20.2 billion or 96% of all statewide tourism expenditures are from domestic tourism.

About Rebecca Tippett

Rebecca Tippett is Director of Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill's Carolina Population Center.
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