Chatham’s visitor spending decreased by 24% in 2020, but the jury’s still out on 2021

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For most people, the idea of tourism generates images of long trips to faraway places, thousands-year-old monuments and tacky fanny packs — not overnight occupancy taxes, parking fees and sales tax.

Yet, that’s crucial to how Neha Shah, director of the Pittsboro-Siler City Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), explains tourism in Chatham County — and how both the county and residents alike benefit from it.

Funded primarily by the county’s 3% occupancy tax, the CVB is a one-person department charged with marketing Chatham and attracting visitors.

“Our main charge is destination marketing and economic impact, so what we want to do is have visitors come, enjoy our areas, spend money, contribute to the occupancy tax, and the sales tax, and then leave without being a burden or taxing our human and social services,” she said. “Essentially, that’s how we’re able to do the cost savings for each resident.”

For most of the last decade, Chatham County raked in record figures of visitor spending; 2019, in fact, brought in the county’s highest amount of visitor spending since 2016 at $63 million, according to Shah — an 8% increase from the year before.

As expected, though, the COVID-riddled 2020 brought that streak to a close: at just over $48 million, visitor spending dropped by 24% from 2019 in Chatham County — a sum about $5.5 million less than 2016’s figures.

“We knew that in 2019, we were going to see an increase, and then in 2020, we received that confirmation,” Shah said. “... We were kind of waiting to see what would happen for the next year — and as expected, we’re down 24%, which is pretty much in line with most of the state and definitely the industry as a whole globally, locally, nationally, regionally. COVID-19 impacted every single industry, including ours.”

Yet, the figure didn’t dip as far as many feared — and Chatham fared far better than more urban counties and North Carolina as a whole, where visitor spending dropped 32%, according to data from the U.S. Travel Association.

“During the pandemic, there was more awareness about rural areas because people were a little hesitant to go to more urban sites,” Shah said, “so that helps us.”

The figure — and Chatham’s decade-long streak for record-breaking visitor spending — look especially impressive when it comes to accommodation in the county versus that of its neighbors.

“So our neighboring counties have anywhere from 10 to 12 to 15,000-plus rooms, and we have 225,” Shah said, “so we basically have to compete for the share of those visitor dollars to have people spend the night.”

What’s more, as she sees it, 2020’s visitor spending managed to save residents nearly double as much tax dollars as in years previous. Visitors, or travelers coming for leisure or business from 50 or more miles away, spend money during their day trips or overnight stays, which yields sales taxes. These visitor-contributed taxes, Shah said, then go to the general fund and relieve some of the tax burden for residents, particularly because visitors don’t use resident services.

Thus, thanks to visitor spending, Chatham residents saved $60.01 in taxes last year; in 2019, residents saved $39.02, and in 2018, that figure was $37.45.

“(The figure) shows that we have an economic impact, and that traveler sentiment has remained strong, even with periodic dips,” Shah said.

Even during the pandemic before vaccinations, people had — or found — plenty of reasons to travel to Chatham.

“We’re a central location,” she said. “We have an abundance of nature-based assets, so a lot of that was fortunate for guests that just needed that break and wanted to get outside. Then events were canceled, weddings were canceled, but there were still pop-up events that were done safely or hybrid.”

The figures are conservative estimates, Shah added, because the formula researchers use to calculate tourism’s economic impact doesn’t always take into account a tourist’s entire itinerary — even though 2020’s methodology used an updated formula “that encompasses a more accurate picture of a visitor itinerary.” The data comes from “Economic Impact of Travel on North Carolina Counties,” an annual report prepared for Visit North Carolina by Tourism Economics.

So, how’s 2021 looking so far, nearly a year after vaccinations first became available? According to Shah, it’s still too early to tell, but things seem to be looking up — and moving forward, the CVB plans to continue emphasizing safe travel and providing information, plus resources, for their clients, who include the hospitality and tourism industry, Chatham’s visitor businesses and visitors themselves.

During the pandemic, the CVB shored up its online marketing efforts by constantly updating its website and sending out weekly newsletters to the local hospitality and tourism industry, among other initiatives. They’ve also earned certificates for safe travel and worked to educate local industry and guests about safety protocols.

“We never stopped planning for recovery, so we keep focusing on safe travel,” Shah said. “Fortunately, our guests are tech-savvy, so the manner in which they receive information works well for our small budget — website, e-news, email, blog, social media, etc.”

Coming up, Shah anticipates quite a few events on Chatham County’s calendar, both private and public. The pandemic forced many to put meetings, celebrations and especially weddings on hold, she said, and while she expects to see them trickle back, she acknowledged they’ll likely look different.

“A lot of the things that were smaller that people had to do alone — or that were, you know, partially indoors — will come back,” she said. “They’re just going to look different. There may be some staggered times. There may be limited capacity still. We’re still kind of in that planning process, so I think everyone’s just being cautious.”

Planning’s already in progress for sporting events like the Tobacco Road Marathon; several festivals, including the Fearrington Folk Art Show and Piedmont Farm Tour, will come back next year as well.

“While we don’t know yet the impact of visitor spending (in 2021),” Shah said, “we are seeing the travel patterns, website traffic, visitor inquiries, and social media engagement, and can say that approximately 20 months later, new and returning visitors are spending time and money in Chatham County.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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