The Swain County TDA collects a 4 percent occupancy tax on all overnight accommodations and that funding is used to market and promote the county’s number one industry — tourism. Back in March when Gov. Roy Cooper placed the entire state under a “Stay at Home” order to prevent the spread of the virus, local governments weren’t sure how it would impact local businesses and tourism dollars, but to their surprise, overnight stays in Swain have not only held steady, but saw a huge increase during the summer months.
“The 2020 N.C. Stay Home order (due to COVID-19) earlier this year was unprecedented in the tourism industry. It was nearly impossible to forecast occupancy tax and tourism recovery once the lodging ban was lifted in May,” said Mary Anne Baker, executive director of the Swain TDA.
Despite the uncertainty, Baker has been happy to report numbers each month to the TDA board that have far exceeded expectations.
During the TDA board’s Sept. 23 meeting, she reported that preliminary August numbers showed the TDA brought in $186,000 in room tax collections when they had only budgeted for $92,000. When the final numbers came in, the county was up to $193,737. To compare, the Swain TDA brought in $117,000 in August 2019. She said about 45 percent of that income was coming through AirBnb and VRBO rentals.
Swain County’s revenue was down slightly (about 6 percent) from last year during the month of May — 2019 May collections were $81,962 compared to $77,064 in 2020. However, June saw a 23 percent increase over last year, July saw a 52 percent increase and August saw a 66 percent increase.
“The spike in visitation over the last six months was not expected. We knew there would be pent-up demand, but we did not anticipate that a large amount of people would be venturing out to take short, regional trips for leisure, or for longer trips where visitors can ‘work from home,’” Baker said.
While the pandemic forced many businesses to shut their doors, it hasn’t stopped tourists from flocking to the great outdoors. With Swain County being located in close proximity to so many natural resources and outdoor recreational opportunities, it’s been an ideal place for visitors to hike, bike, visit waterfalls, swim, fish and partake in other outdoor adventures while social distancing.
Baker said the largest gains have been realized in lodging, more specifically in remote cabins or lodging that do not require the guest to have contact with people outside of their traveling party.
“Our abundance of natural resources and remote cabins are meeting visitor demands to be able to recreate outdoors where they feel they can safely social distance,” she said. “Campgrounds and RV Parks are also experiencing increases along with most retailers and shopkeepers.”
Restaurants, attractions and some outfitters are still operating under reduced occupancy as regulated by the state. Next week, The Smoky Mountain News will take a closer look at how the pandemic has impacted individual businesses and whether the growth in overnight stays translated into more revenue for downtown retailers.