(Photo credit: Brian Tress)

NC - Tourism at a crossroads on the Outer Banks

This installment examines the connection between tourism and the environmental stewardship of the area’s natural treasures.

The Long-Range Tourism Management Plan (LTRMP) released by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau in 2023 recommends adopting an integrated approach to environmental stewardship.  As vague as this may sound, progress has already been made toward this goal, although there is still much more to be done.  Leaders of organizations such as the Coastal Studies Institute and National Park Service—action-oriented proponents of environmental stewardship who also understand the importance of tourism to the OBX economy—will have a voice in how the plan is implemented as ongoing members of the LRTMP Task Force.

The LRTMP’s objective of environmental stewardship has a head start in the Outer Banks, as efforts have been made by tourism, environmental, and non-profit stakeholders to engage visitors with the natural environment, including placing educational screens and signage in strategic locations such as parks, beaches, piers and hiking trails, and hosting science-oriented summer camps for kids who live or are vacationing here.

Stakeholders are already supporting low-impact and immersive recreation by funding improvements to parking areas and more accessible launch points for kayaking and kite surfing and developing new multi-use paths and hiking and biking trails. And ecotourism activities like birding, dolphin-watch tours and wild horse tours have gained in popularity, although are not as established as other recreational offerings, such as fishing charters and water sports.

Nonetheless, a shadow hovers over these initiatives, given an expected one-foot rise in sea level over the next 25 years that could wipe out entire beaches and the houses alongside them. Reide Corbett, coastal oceanographer, geochemist and Executive Director of the Coastal Studies Institute in Wanchese, views the LRTMP as a mechanism to talk about the vulnerability of the Outer Banks and how to be resilient.

“To think we can maintain a resilient beach all over Dare County is naïve.” he begins. “Dare County is at the forefront of the implications of climate change.  We need to use the data we have—changing shorelines, increasing inundation—to focus on varying vulnerabilities and decide where to invest. This tourism management plan allows these topics to enter the dialogue—we want to maintain a resilient shoreline because that’s why people come here. Houses falling into the ocean, exposed septic tanks, these are not great images for tourism.”  According to Corbett, the Town of Nags Head is already bringing science into their planning process by convening a shoreline management committee and incorporating sea-level rises in their planning documents.

Corbett says there are a variety of tools that can enable the Outer Banks to be strategic on where and how it maintains its beaches, such as property buy-outs, house relocations, selective nourishment and disincentivizing people from buying or developing homes in precarious locations.

“We should be focused on satisfaction, not growth,” he says. “Every community should be actively looking at their current zoning regulations and putting them in a framework of where we are today, not the 80s and 90s.”

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