|By Richard Craver, Winston-Salem Journal,
N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Mar. 18, 2008 - North Carolina's tourism industry had a robust year in 2007, with a record $16.5 billion spent by out-of-state visitors despite higher fuel costs and a slowing economy.
But presenters at the annual Governor's Conference on Tourism cautioned yesterday that the industry faces significant climate, economic and political challenges for keeping pace in 2008. The conference, which will conclude today at Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem, has attracted a record attendance of 535.
The industry also honored three people with a Northwest North Carolina connection. Bob McCoy, the president of Visit Winston-Salem, and Grady and Reba Moretz, the owners of Appalachian Ski Mountain for 40 years, were named as recipients of the Winner's Circle award. McCoy also was named as the statewide honoree for public service.
Spending by out-of-state visitors in North Carolina increased 7.2 percent last year, according to preliminary data from the Travel Industry Association of America. The industry also had a net gain of 3,700 jobs in the state during 2007 to nearly 191,000, led by the food-services sector at 83,100. Local and state tax receipts related to tourism rose 4 percent to more than $1.3 billion.
"Our aggressive efforts to promote tourism are paying off in good jobs and more recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike," Gov. Mike Easley said in a statement.
However, the higher that gas prices rise this summer, the shorter that visitor trips and stays may be in North Carolina, said Peter Yesawich, the chairman and chief executive of Ypartnership, a public-relations company that specializes in the industry.
Yesawich predicted that $3.50 a gallon for unleaded gas would be the threshold at which tourists begin moderating their plans to trips of six hours or less. He said that North Carolina remains within driving distance for many East Coast vacationers turning to three-day weekends over weeklong trips.
A discussion on key issues found three panelists trying to rally support for new marketing money from the General Assembly to better compete with neighboring states for those shorter trips.
The panelists also urged preserving a 2005 law that set Aug. 25 as the start date for most public-school systems. Some parents and representatives of the industry said that the schedule maintains the traditional vacation time parents want and helps the coastal economy.
However, education groups, including the N.C. School Boards Association and the N.C. Association of School Administrators, are lobbying state senators to provide more waivers to the start date. House Bill 359 passed in April 2007; the Senate version is in the educational/public instruction committee.
The education groups want waivers allowed for reasons that include: high schools aligning their calendars with community colleges and universities offering dual and middle-college enrollment; having end-of-course exams take place before the Christmas holiday break; and aligning with Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.
Don Martin, the superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, has said he would take a proposal for a new school calendar to the local school board if the bill passes the General Assembly.
"This is going to be a fight every year because there likely will be requests every year for waivers," said Connie Wilson, the legislative liaison for the N.C. Travel Industry Association and a six-time House representative from Mecklenburg County.
"Many parents are not aware that the start date can be changed again even though they got what they wanted. They need to get plugged back in to keep the start date the same."
The panelists also discussed the effects of the drought on tourism; requests for changes to the state and local occupancy taxes for funds for nontourism projects; immigration employment; the increase in roadside litter; and a potential expanded recycling effort for beverage containers.
-- Richard Craver can be reached at 727-7376 or at email@example.com.
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