|By Jeff Hampton, The
Virginian-PilotMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 28, 2012 --Neither storms, nor high gas prices, nor permits for beach driving have kept Outer Banks visitors from their appointed vacations.
Through October, occupancy taxes collected in 2012 reached an all-time high of $376 million, breaking last year's mark by about $6 million with two months yet to be counted. These fees charged for hotels, motels and beach houses are a key indicator of tourism numbers.
"I think that's a testament to the strength of the destination," said Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. "It offers something different that you can't find any other place."
Dare County's permanent population is about 35,000, but it can balloon to more than 200,000 during the summer, Nettles said.
For every stay in a motel, hotel or beach house, customers are charged a tax of 11.75 percent, according to the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. Of that, 6.75 percent is sales tax, and 5 percent goes to occupancy taxes.
From the occupancy taxes, the Dare County Tourism Board gets 1 percent for marketing and for tourism-related grants for such projects as bike paths and boardwalks. The towns and county divide 3 percent, and 1 percent goes to a fund for beach nourishment.
The towns and county also use the occupancy tax to help pay for police and trash pickup, among other services.
In June, the average price for a gallon of regular gas nationally was $3.50. In Hatteras, a gallon topped $4. Yet throngs headed for the Outer Banks.
When Hurricane Irene struck the Outer Banks in late August 2011, it washed out N.C. 12 and caused an evacuation. Many shop owners, residents and officials expected a drop-off this year for Labor Day bookings because of the potential for another storm, but such was not the case.
Early this year, Cape Hatteras National Seashore began requiring permits to drive on the beach. An annual pass costs $120. But tourists kept coming anyway. Visitation numbers to the national park reached 2.4 million by the end of November, a 19 percent increase over the same period in 2011.
"The Outer Banks just doesn't have the bottoms that other places do," said Sterling Webster, builder and managing partner of the Hilton Garden Inn in Kitty Hawk. "The Outer Banks is special."
The vacation destination is more relaxed and more family-oriented than other well-known beaches such as Atlantic Beach, N.C., and Ocean City, Md., said Webster, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years.
Between Philadelphia and Nags Head, millions live within a few hours' drive of the Outer Banks, Webster said. In a poor economy, cruises and trips to Europe might be too expensive, but people still will go to the mountains or the beach, he added.
Jeff Hampton, 252-338-0159, email@example.com
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