By Dave Russell
New data from the U.S. Travel Association provides visitor spending totals in all 100 North Carolina counties for 2020. For a county its size, Jackson County is a heavyweight, easily outpunching its neighbors.
Information from the study, first released in May, previously showed statewide visitor spending dropped 32 percent last year, due primarily to the coronavirus. The new data shows revenue losses were felt most keenly in urban areas, with some smaller destinations seeing gains.
The spending report was commissioned by Visit North Carolina, the state’s tourism promotion unit, and is published annually.
“It shows the tremendous growth in our visitor economy,” said Nick Breedlove, director of the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority. “They’re spending more than they have ever spent historically, which supports jobs in the local economy.”
A new firm hired this year, Tourism Economics, gave a more accurate picture, looking at the numbers dating back to 2016.
“They’ve adjusted the numbers to be a lot more accurate than they have been previously,” he said. “In 2016, it was $251 million in county visitor spending. Fast forward to 2020 and we’re at $292.6 million in visitor spending. So in four years, we’ve grown spending about $40 million.”
What do those out-of-state license plates mean for Jackson County residents?
“Residents save $537 a year as a result of visitor spending,” he said. “That comes back as state and local taxes. For the average person, visitor spending may not mean a lot, but the taxes come back to Jackson County government.
“If it wasn’t for $12.8 million in local taxes and $11 million in state taxes, especially the $12.8 million that comes back to Jackson County, we would either have to decrease services or raise taxes. Everything under the sun is affected by tourism because those sales tax dollars go directly into the county’s budget.”
In terms of jobs, tourism supports 2,141 jobs in Jackson County and almost $84.5 million in payroll.
“There’s no other industry that puts that much money in local small businesses every day,” he said. “The biggest thing I noticed from the report is we have the 15th-highest visitor spending in the state, which is pretty significant out of 100 counties. Short of Buncombe, there is no other county in the western region that visitors spend more money in than Jackson. West of Mecklenburg, the only counties that beat us are Buncombe and Watauga.“
Visitor spending related to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort is split between Swain and Jackson.
Western Carolina University plays a role.
“The spending in our downtown area plummets when the students go home,” he said. “The WCU football games sell out our hotels. It helps our restaurants and small businesses.”
2020 statewide tourism spending is down about 30 percent over 2019 numbers, but Jackson County only fell about .8 percent.
“Business travel slowed down due to the pandemic, but leisure travel never slowed down for us, it only increased,” Breedlove said.
The county’s natural beauty was part of the draw.
“It’s the appeal of the mountains and the great outdoors and the wide open spaces,” he said. “People just felt safer in rural areas than in crowded cities.”
The 2021 numbers are looking sharp as well.
“Every month in 2021 we’ve broken every record in our history,” he said. “For example, July this year was our highest July ever.”
Breedlove said tourism officials have proven they can draw visitors and now should expand focus to their experience here.
“It’s not just about attracting people, but once they are here, how was their experience?” he said. “Are we keeping the environment sustainable? Are people loving our places to death, and if so how can we mitigate that?”
The state ranks fifth in the U.S. for visitation. Full tables can be accessed at partners.visitnc.com/economic-impact-studies.
“We have experienced a significant increase in guests visiting Jackson County,” said Julie Donaldson, director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “We are truly busier than we have ever been.”
Relocation requests have doubled over the past 18 months, and visitors often browse for property to relocate here, she said.
“People continue to find Jackson County’s varied amenities attractive,” Donaldson said. “Our economy here is resilient, due in part to our awesome business owners and workforce who have continued to show up every day and provide wonderful service and offerings.”