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When Coastal Hazards Threaten Your Outer Banks Trip

Sand gets moved around to protect further dune erosion along the beach at Carova.

A trip to the Outer Banks is a tradition for some North Carolina families and a bucket-list destination for other tourists. A new study from North Carolina State University asked visitors for their reactions to having travel plans disrupted by coastal hazards like washed-out roads or limited beach access. Would they reschedule? Go somewhere else? Stop visiting the Outer Banks?

Their answers provide insight for
tourism planning and investments in coastal communities, says lead author Erin
Seekamp, an NC State associate professor and tourism extension specialist in
the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management.

“The majority of those we surveyed
said they wouldn’t change their trip-taking behavior, but about a third or so
said that they were uncertain what they would do,” Seekamp says. “It’s that
third that could really plague the future economy of Outer Banks tourism

More than 340 Outer Banks visitors responded to scenarios involving four factors that could affect their trip plans: transportation disruptions, increased lodging taxes to pay for beach nourishment (adding sand to beaches), narrow beach width, and limited access because of beach nourishment projects at their destinations.

“We found that transportation
disruption was most important in terms of future trip-taking behavior,” Seekamp
says. “The idea of this study was to try to figure out, among many different
factors that influence coastal tourists to the Outer Banks, which would be the
most important that would inhibit them from returning.”

Possible transportation disruptions
involved having to reach the Outer Banks by ferry because the Highway 64 bridge
was closed; absence of the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry until the inlet was dredged;
or closure of Highway 12, a scenic byway along the Outer Banks, at Oregon

“It was the ability to drive Highway 12 north-south that seems to be driving people’s decision-making and their expectation of what an Outer Banks vacation is like,” Seekamp says. “They want to visit many sites and being able to drive along that thin ribbon of sand between Nags Head and Hatteras is important to them.”

While transportation issues could impede access for travelers, other scenarios focused on costs, aesthetics and crowding, which are also related to travel behavior, Seekamp says.

Increased costs—in this case in the
form of lodging taxes to support beach nourishment projects—was not as
important as transportation disruptions, even when the hypothetical scenario
was as high as a 7.5% increase.

“I think that is a good indication
that there is potential for tourists themselves to start paying for the
opportunities to go back and continue to connect with this place,” Seekamp
says. “Finding new, creative strategies to fund investments in coastal
communities is going to be really important. We also need to understand the
decision-making processes businesses use to plan for and reinvest after coastal
hazards, as well as look for more opportunities to coordinate projects as a

A 25 to 75% likelihood of having to
take a half-mile detour to reach the beach while sand was being added was a
less important factor in respondents’ decision making, as was having a narrow
beach spanning 50, 100 or 150 feet from dunes to water’s edge at high tide.

Surveys took place in summer 2016
at tourist destinations in Dare and Hyde counties. About a quarter of those
responding (27%) were first-time visitors, while 28% had visited the region two
to five times and 27% had visited six to 20 times. About 18% of those surveyed
had visited the Outer Banks more than 20 times.   

“The Outer Banks means a lot to many
visitors in terms of their own personal identity as they find themselves
connecting with the resources and experiences that the Outer Banks provide,”
Seekamp says. “It not only gives them a sense of self-identity but also family
identity if they’ve had a tradition of visiting together for a long time.”

Where participants lived and the
connection they felt to the Outer Banks influenced their plans to postpone
their trips, change destinations or stop visiting the region.

In-state residency was the only
factor linked to substituting a trip to another North Carolina beach. North
Carolina residents who had lower incomes and felt a greater connection to the
Outer Banks were more likely to shift their trips to the Inner Banks if faced
with disruptions.

Younger, out-of-state residents who
had visited the Outer Banks less and had higher incomes were most likely to
rebook their trips to a beach outside of North Carolina. People who reported
less of a connection to the Outer Banks were the most likely to stop visiting

“One of the things I’d like to
study in the future is what happens with people who were displaced from the
Outer Banks,” Seekamp says. “What were their connections before they left and
have they made new connections to other beaches? Have they started going to the
mountains instead? It’s important to look at people’s long-term connections
with place.”

The study, “Influences on coastal tourism demand and substitution behaviors
from climate change impacts and hazard recovery responses,” appears in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism.
Co-authors Matthew Jurjonas and Karly Bitsura-Meszaros are former NC State
graduate students. NC
State’s College of Natural Resources supported the study.

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Note: An
abstract of the paper follows.

“Influences on
coastal tourism demand and substitution behaviors from climate change impacts
and hazard recovery responses”

Authors: Erin
Seekamp, Matthew Jurjonas and Karly Bitsura-Meszaros, North Carolina State

Published: Journal of Sustainable Tourism


Abstract: Climate change impacts can negatively
affect tourism demand and, subsequently, local economies by disrupting access
and altering physical conditions, including those from adaptation and recovery
efforts. Research is needed that helps destinations become more climate ready,
including studies of decision factors that influence trip-taking behaviors.
This paper presents findings from a discrete choice experiment to determine how
physical and economic changes could affect visitation behaviors to a vulnerable
coastal destination, the Outer Banks region of North Carolina, USA. We embedded
our experiment within an on-site visitor survey to reveal thresholds of
negative changes to coastal attributes that tourists are willing to tolerate,
and also examined tourists’ willingness to substitute their future trips to the
region. Transportation-related changes had the highest relative importance
among the four selected attributes. The likelihood of three types of spatial
substitution, spurred by not being able to access the destination, were
consistently related to residency but less consistently related to place
meanings, visitation history, and other demographic variables. Study results
can inform climate change planning within coastal zones to minimize negative
impacts to tourism demand, such as the need to develop creative revenue streams
to maintain resilience in communities that rely on occupancy taxes.

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