LUMBERTON — Robeson County’s tourism industry generated a record $127 million in 2013, according to a recent study prepared for the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development by the U.S. Travel Association.
Mickey Gregory, executive director of the Lumberton Visitors Bureau, said that many local residents are likely unaware that tourism is such a fruitful industry in Robeson County.
“Folks in our own community don’t recognize the impact that tourism has,” she said. “I don’t think that people here consider travel and tourism to be an industry.”
Out of 100 counties in North Carolina, the U.S. Travel Association ranked Robeson County 33rd in tourism revenue.
Last year’s figure marks a 1.43 percent increase from the $125 million generated in 2012 and accounts for more than $9 million in tax revenue, which, according to Gregory, represented an annual tax saving of $72.55 for residents. The travel and tourism industry directly employs about 1,050 people in Robeson County through 16 labor categories, including lodging, dinning, transportation, retail and recreation.
Tourism generated $18.49 million in payroll revenue last year, making the average annual income about $17,000.
Gregory, who has been with the Visitors Bureau for six years, said that Robeson County’s tourism industry is driven in large part by “snowbirds” who travel Interstate 95 — retirees who travel north for the summer and south for the winter. According to Gregory, snowbirds account for more than 70 percent of visitors to Lumberton.
I-95 is one of the most traveled highways in the United State, and it is lined with hotels, restaurants and service stations in Lumberton.
“We have a real advantage being halfway between New York and Florida,” Gregory said. “It’s a safe area and they can see all of our hotels from the interstate. We also have billboards near the Virginia and South Carolina state lines letting people know how close they are to Lumberton.”
Teri Bryan, a front-desk manager at the Lumberton Holiday Inn, said the hotel experiences a large influx of guests during the summer and winter.
“We’re pretty busy, especially since it’s directly off Interstate 95,” she said. “People always say we’re the halfway point.”
Lumberton also profits from major highways like N.C. 211 and U.S. 74.
Gregory cites the bureau’s website and social media as key factors in the continued growth of tourism in Robeson County.
“The website and Facebook page are especially valuable,” she said. “We’re the only office in the county that can provide visitor information to visitnc.com about events. We have a well-maintained Facebook where we try to keep things posted about businesses and fundraiser.”
Gregory said that the efforts of organizations such as the Robeson County Arts Council and the Rediscover Downtown Lumberton Group have also helped to attract travelers. Some of the county’s most popular destinations for tourists include the Carolina Civic Center in downtown Lumberton, the Givens Performing Arts Center at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, the Lumber River State Park in Orrum, and the Southeastern Agricultural Events Center in Lumberton.
Tourism revenue in Robeson County has increased annually since the peak of the global recession, during which revenue dropped 6.03 percent from $113 million in 2008 to $106 million in 2009.
“That was the year that the economy really took a dive,” Gregory said.
Gregory expects tourism revenue will continue to climb upward this year thanks to events such as the U.S. Open, which brought more than 50,000 visitors to nearby Pinehurst in June, and the North Carolina Horse Council’s upcoming Cowboy Up, a large equestrian show which is expected to bring thousands of people from across the state to Southeastern Agricultural Events Center in Lumberton in September.
“The horse show is going to bring thousands of dollars into our economy,” she said. “I’m very satisfied for 2013 and I’m encouraged by what we’re seeing for 2014.”