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Orange County sees increase in visitor spending, contributes $236 million to local economy

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Customers shopped inside of Chapel Hill Sportswear on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023.

Orange County's visitor spending increased by 21.3 percent from 2021 to 2022, according to a recent report released by the N.C. Department of Commerce. This is higher than the state’s average, which increased by 13.4 percent during the same period.

Orange County is among the top 10 counties for increases in visitor spending for the state, ranking alongside neighboring Wake and Durham counties.

Patty Griffin, the communications director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, said this increase in spending could be attributed to changes in COVID-19 protocols and lowered risk associated with travel.

“I think, as a whole, people started traveling more in 2022,” Griffin said. “The mask mandate ended in early 2022 and I think people just felt more comfortable traveling.”

Griffin said Orange County has also become a popular spot for those interested in relocating. 

“A week doesn’t go by when we don’t have someone in our welcome center saying, 'I’m moving from New York or moving from Boston,'” Griffin said. “More and more people are coming here and moving here, so they’ll spend time here as a visitor looking for the right place to live.”

In 2022, visitor spending contributed $236 million to the Orange County economy, according to the bureau website. In addition to the money visitors are spending in the community, their increased presence is helping to create stable jobs in Orange County, especially in the hospitality, food and beverage industries, Griffin said.

She also said that since Chapel Hill is tied to UNC and the University brought back events that were canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions, more visitors returned to Chapel Hill during the year.

“A lot of events that might not have happened in 2020 or 2021 are back,” she said. “The stadiums are full for sporting events and conferences, concerts and plays held on campus are seeing good crowds.” 

Holly Dedmond, general manager at Chapel Hill Sportswear on Franklin Street, said that during the COVID-19 pandemic when UNC classes were virtual, business suffered. She said since UNC has returned to in-person learning in recent years, business has almost returned to pre-COVID levels. 

“With the popularity of Carolina football on the rise, people are coming into town for that and then they come to Franklin Street to shop," Dedmond said.

She said as business increases, the capacity for businesses to hire more employees also increases. For places like Chapel Hill Sportswear, that means student employees have the opportunity to work more hours. 

Casey Longyear, co-owner of Rumors Boutique, said the increase in visiting sales for her store in Chapel Hill is partially because of UNC, but also because of the local arts scene that Chapel Hill and Carrboro host. 

“I think a lot of people come for UNC, but I think a lot of people come for music as well,” Longyear said. “A lot of people who come in our store, at least, are going to Cat's Cradle.”

Longyear also said Rumors was able to implement and sustain new raises for their employees after their sales number increased in 2022.

Looking forward, Griffin said the visitor's bureau will continue to market the Chapel Hill and greater community as a tourist destination with much to offer, especially as Orange County continues to grow in 2023. 

“It's an exciting time for travel and for our destination,” Griffin said.  

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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