Summer is on the horizon, and North Carolina remains a top destination for travelers. This year’s tourism outlook, however, is uncertain amid ongoing economic instability and elevated costs contributing to financial strains for many Americans. 

Numerous destinations await travelers in the Tar Heel State, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the glistening sandy beaches along the coast. For North Carolina-bound travelers, the beautiful scenery (74%) continues to be the most influential feature when selecting a destination, followed by the food and drink scene (60%), safety (59%), and outdoor/nature activities (59%). 

Beach experiences, historical sites, visiting a state or national park, and shopping are the top activities of interest for potential visitors. Checking all of those boxes, the Outer Banks stands out for its pristine beaches along the North Carolina’s shipwrecked coast. The Outer Banks area has been recognized as one of America’s top 50 vacation spots for 2024 by AAA, particularly for its award-winning beachscape.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (Source: Visit NC)

Although data from a recent Carolina Journal poll found that 43.3% of North Carolinians plan to spend less on travel this year, the state’s economic development organization, Visit North Carolina, is still expecting a small growth rate for 2024. The nonprofit estimates even spending intentions are up, with 67% of North Carolina prospects reporting expectations to spend more on travel in the next 12 months than they have in recent years. 

“We are pleased that the summer travel forecast is positive for North Carolina,” said Wit Tuttell, Visit NC’s executive director. “As much as we always love to see percentages soar, expectations for even a small growth rate are welcome on top of the leaps and bounds we experienced in the aftermath of COVID.”

Even for families on a tighter budget may have Carolina on their mind: a recent study ranked the Outer Banks as the least expensive destination for families to visit.  The study found that the destination offers a full day’s experience for just $177, making a 7-day family vacation possible for around $3,247.90. 

Inland from the salty air, lake days are also popular for vacationers who prefer freshwater. North Carolina is home to several large lakes, with man-made Lake Norman extending over 32,000 acres and sitting less than 40 miles north of Charlotte. The lake is one of 12 boating locations in North Carolina that Freedom Boat Club services for boaters looking for easy access to the water without all the hassle.

The company provides unlimited “walk on, walk off” boating to a local fleet of boats for its members and also offers training programs for newbies. Other popular areas they service include Lake Jordan and Falls Lake near Raleigh, as well as coastal towns including Beaufort, Surf City, Carolina Beach, and Southport.

Across North Carolina they have nearly 4,000 memberships, according to their website.

Traveler sentiment is relatively unchanged from last year, while concerns surrounding inflationary pressures, gas prices, airport disruptions and COVID have all decreased from last year. When it comes to accommodations, hotel forecasted demand is flat this year but is expected to pick up in 2025. 

“That being said, 2023 was a record-breaking year for room nights sold in NC,” said Visit NC officials, noting more than 38 million rooms sold. “Looking at just the summer months, demand is expected to be up about 1 percent from last year, while revenues are expected to be up by about 3 percent.”

The tourism industry in North Carolina generates over $30 billion and created over 200,000 jobs. In 2022, North Carolina hosted approximately 43 million visitors, making it the sixth most visited state in the nation.