Tanya Thompson of Fayetteville had the day off from work Thursday. But instead of taking a day-trip to the beach or the mountains, she headed to Raleigh with her two daughters.
“All of the history is here,” daughter Brittany Williams said as they visited the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. “You have to come to Raleigh to see it.”
Whether for history, museums or other reasons, tourists are heading to the Triangle this year. Raleigh and Durham have welcomed more visitors so far in 2011 than at any time since the recession started.
“The opportunity is very bright for continued job growth in the tourism sector because the demand is back,” said Dennis Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We are seeing more hotels and more restaurants hiring either full-time or part-time because they need to service the growing demand.”
Through the end of May, Raleigh hotel occupancy was up about 9 percent over 2010′s average of 61.4 percent occupancy.
Officials say three factors have been key to the Triangle’s increase:
More business travel.
More conferences and conventions.
More big sporting events, whether professional, collegiate or amateur. Earlier this month, Raleigh hosted the U.S. Lacrosse Southeast Regional Lax Fest. And in January, the city was host to the NHL All-Star Game.
In Durham, travel also is on the upswing, said Shelly Green of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We think that will spill over into more overnight visitors in 2011,” she added.
Triangle tourism is about much more than business people and sports fans. Leisure and in-state visitors, such as Tanya Thompson, are the majority of those who come to Raleigh.
“That four-hour radius of Raleigh is still our sweet spot,” Edwards said. “It’s still affordable for families to visit.”
From 2008 to 2010, about 85 percent of day-trippers and 38 percent of overnight visitors in Raleigh were from North Carolina. Museums and historic sites, especially, appeal to in-state visitors. And their free admissions promote return visits.
“As a family, we could definitely come back to take our time,” said schoolteacher Amanda Sutton of Swain County, in the North Carolina mountains. She and her husband chaperoned 44 students on a trip to the Natural Sciences and History museums this month.
The Museum of Natural Sciences, which often hosts school and tour groups, had 55,583 visitors in June – nearly 5,000 more than in June 2010. Museum spokeswoman Emilia Cowans cited a number of factors, including the “Our Expanding Oceans” exhibit.
Nelda Sorenson of northwest Florida said she came with daughter Casey and grandson Gavin for the museum’s dinosaur exhibit. They made the trip to Raleigh after Gavin was picked up at a camp in Black Mountain.
Asked what is special about Raleigh as opposed to other spots, the young Gavin said, “The dinosaurs and the Capitol building!”
Across the way, the Museum of History has seen a slight dip in visitation this summer, but Chief Financial Officer Hal McKinney attributed that to the fact that the museum doesn’t have a blockbuster exhibit right now. It’s working on the next phase of its exhibit, The Story of North Carolina, which will open in early November. Part One opened in April and features a chronology of North Carolina through the 1830s.
“After we start the big phase two of that exhibit, I guarantee you will see an uptick in attendance,” McKinney said.
The Museum of Life and Science in Durham has experienced a 6.15 percent increase in attendance during the past six months. That’s especially needed because three-fourths of the museum’s operating budget comes from sources such as admission, memberships and donations.
“The overwhelming popularity of our after-hour events for ages 21 and up has introduced the museum to a new audience,” spokeswoman Taneka Bennett said. “People taking day trips closer to home may have also contributed to our attendance success.”
The museum’s success mirrors other tourism growth in Durham, where visitors spent $689.2 million in 2010 – a $61.5 million increase from 2009.
“The fact that tourism and travel are showing a strong rebound is good news for what’s to come,” Green said.