Despite HB2, Wake County tourism breaks records in 2016

RALEIGH, North Carolina (WTVD) -- Wake County tourism is up, breaking records for the number of visitors and spending in 2016, according to the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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Wake County had 15.6 million visitors in 2016, an increase of 3.5 percent over 2015. They spent $2.4 billion, an increase of 4.2 percent over 2015. The GRCVB said both figures are the highest they have ever reported, despite the passage of House Bill 2, which required people use public restrooms that match the gender on their birth certificate.

"We are really becoming a well-known destination for the Southeast now," said Denny Edwards, president and CEO of the GRCVB.

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GRCVB contracted with two national travel and tourism research organization to estimate key tourism statistics.

Wake County set records across all key performance indicators throughout 2016, including an average hotel occupancy rate of 70.1 percent (a slight year-over-year increase of 0.2 percent), as well as a 4.5 percent year-over-year increase in area hotels' average daily rate (to $100.85). Lodging tax collections totaled $24.2 million, up 8.4 percent year-over-year, and prepared food and beverage collections rose 6.5 percent in 2016, amounting to $26.9 million.

The spike is also creating more jobs.

The local tourism industry now has 25,535 full-time employees, adding nearly 800 new workers every month.

The spike came despite cries for lawmakers to repeal HB2.

Republicans say the tourism boom goes against the argument that the controversial legislation turned away visitors.

"We've always believed that a lot of the HB2 controversy was drummed for political purposes," said NC GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse. "They were willing to try to bring North Carolina to its knees or try to look like North Carolina was on its knees to try to elect some Democrats."

Some tourism leaders caution North Carolina could still see the fallout.

Twenty-four conventions pulled out of the state over HB2, some through 2019.

"There are still groups that are either booked in Raleigh or still considering Raleigh are concerned about coming here," said Edwards.

Four cities and four states still have travel bans in place to North Carolina, as of April, even after the law was repealed. On March 30, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed HB142, a compromise HB2 replacement bill into law.

Edwards said it could still be another 12 to 18 months before the tourism industry sees the full impact of HB2.

"In some people's mind, the repeal was wonderful, and it certainly brought us back to square one. Unfortunately, not every state and city in the country still views us that way."
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