Pandemic boomtown: Outer Banks business picked up last summer and never slowed down

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DARE COUNTY, N.C. (WAVY) — As summer travel season builds to its peak, tourists are hitting the road and heading to their favorite vacation spots.  

That’s easy to see on the Outer Banks, where roads are busier than ever before and realtors say rentals are booked solid. 

Those are signs of a business boom that began during the pandemic and never really slowed down. 

“Last fall was like summer crowds,” said Joe O’Grady, who owns Coastal Kayak Touring Company in Duck. “It was just steady right through all of fall, October into November, like I’ve never seen it.” 

That came as a relief to O’Grady, who last March didn’t even know if his business would survive. 

Dare County had closed its borders to non-residents and didn’t reopen until mid-May. 

“Once that happened, it was like summertime,” O’Grady said. “Summer started early.” 

Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce CEO Karen Brown said the off-season never came in 2020 and 2021. 

“[Visitors] continued to come and stay and have a great impact on our economy,” Brown said.

Occupancy tax collected in Dare County in March 2021 was 300% higher than in March 2019, according to data compiled by the chamber. 

During the summer in pre-pandemic years, Brown estimates Dare County would get 250,000 visitors per week. Now, that number has jumped to 400,000 visitors per week. 

O’Grady said he was particularly blessed, because the continued COVID restrictions didn’t prohibit outdoor activity.  

“People are going to want to be outside, there’s no movie theaters, there’s no bar activity, so kayaking, being outside was a home run,” he said. 

Wide open spaces and spaced-out housing were likely a big draw for tourists as they considered beach destinations at the height of the pandemic, according to Brown. 

“Our beaches are wide, and people can socially distance on the beach,” she said. “It’s very calm, and I think that’s what people are looking for in the middle of the pandemic.” 

Even with pandemic restrictions eased, Brown predicts the Outer Banks’s popularity will prevail, although perhaps not to the current degree.  

“I think they’ve discovered a place they love and they’ll continue to be here,” she said.  

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