Tourism, turtle nests set records in Dare County

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — It seems that tourism and sea turtles can thrive together, if visitor and nesting figures from coastal Dare County last year are any indication.

Figures from the Dare County Visitors Bureau show the county broke a record for occupancy taxes in 2012 with more than $382 million collected through November, compared with more than $367 million in 2011. Meanwhile, sea turtles nested in record numbers along Cape Hatteras National Seashore, with 222 nests found in 2012. The previous record of 153 was set in 2010.

The numbers "show me that the new rule is balancing various uses of the seashore and allowing pedestrians, drivers and wildlife to enjoy the seashore," said Julie Youngman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

She was referring to a rule that took formal effect last year that restricts driving along the seashore in certain places and at certain times of year to protect wildlife during breeding seasons. In addition, permits that cost $120 annually were required in 2012 for the first time to drive on the beach.

The county collected a record amount of occupancy taxes despite Superstorm Sandy, which hit in October and damaged N.C. Highway 12, making Hatteras Island accessible only by ferry for almost two months. Occupancy taxes are charged for hotels, motels and beach houses and indicate tourism numbers. Occupancy taxes also increased on Hatteras Island from almost $99 million in 2011 to more than $106 million in the first 11 months of 2012.

Such numbers would seem to be music to the ears of Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. But Nettles knows that not all businesses benefit even while numbers are up county-wide.

"As far as numbers are concerned, it's reason to be happy," he said. "But it's kind of a mixed bag. We had another storm this year. It happened later in the season, so it didn't affect us as much in terms of overall numbers. But it's still something that the businesses and the people live on Hatteras Island have had to contend with — the access on N.C. 12 is just an ongoing issue for us."

Among those affected was Frank Folb, who has operated the tackle shop Frank and Fran's in Avon on Hatteras Island since 1988.

Last year "was probably as bad as I've ever seen in many, many years," Folb said. Limited fishing areas ruined spring, and Sandy, followed by two nor'easters, took care of the end of the year, he said.

He's ordered $60,000 of stock for this year, but his survival relies mainly on the road staying open. "The road is precarious enough that on a hard nor'easter, we could be closed again," he said.

Just a mile south down N.C. 12 sits Cafe 12, a restaurant where business has improved every year since John and Kathy King bought it in April 2007.

"We had a good year overall," John King said. "The killer was when Sandy went through. That hurt bad. After Irene, we still got October and November. This year, we got Labor Day, but it wiped out October, November and December."

One reason for the difference in the two businesses may be a change in the type of visitor Hatteras attracts.

Locals say they've noticed more people who want to sit on the beach or in hot tubs and fewer fishermen. More fancy SUVs and fewer sand- and salt-weathered off-road vehicles. And that translates into more people who want to eat out.

"When we first came down, from Labor Day on, it was basically all fishermen," King said. "They were here to fish for the big drum, the big bluefish and stuff. Most of them were running around in old four-wheel-drive pickups."

Because of the change in the type of vacationer attracted to Hatteras, Folb is changing the type of stock he orders for his store. For this year, he's ordered more of the $100-and-under fishing rods for vacationers casting line for the first time and fewer of the heavy-duty rods for those who want to head out to Cape Point when the blues are running.

"We're used to a 10-month season," he said. "And our season in the fishing business is becoming shorter and shorter."

Youngman, who has vacationed on Hatteras since she was a child, said she understands the locals are concerned about the changes brought on by the wildlife protection rules.

"I've heard them explaining their fears," she said. "I know change can seem difficult. I think these tourism and wildlife and visitation numbers show the change was not as devastating as predicted by some."