Guest Opinion: “Preserving the Past, Building the Future: The Rise of Inland Tourism in the Albemarle Region” – OBX Today

Josh Bass, President of the Currituck Chamber of Commerce. (Submitted)

Submitted by Josh Bass, Currituck Chamber of Commerce President

In recent years, tourism throughout the region has expanded. Traditionally, tourism occurred only on a small scale anywhere west of the Wright Memorial Bridge. There is no doubt the Outer Banks beaches are still the giant leader of regional tourism, but look around and you will see the beginning of a new inland tourism economy starting to take shape. A number of Airbnb properties are starting to pop up in Currituck, Elizabeth City, and throughout the rest of the region. I counted Airbnbs recently and there were nearly 100 Airbnbs between Currituck Courthouse and the Wright Memorial Bridge.

A few months ago I was at Two Souls Wine bar in Elizabeth City and I was shamelessly eavesdropping on the tables around me. There was a young couple at a table near me from Michigan chatting with their server. They were staying in an Airbnb in downtown Elizabeth City and using that as a base to explore the region for a few days. Their plans were to spend one day down at the Outer Banks looking around, take a day exploring Elizabeth City, and then a final day checking out Edenton.  I think in the future this is the way more and more visitors will start to encounter our region. Spending a week at a beach cottage will still be a major driver, but there will be a growing market in the future for shorter stays and more regional experiences.

For many years Charleston has been ranked as a top travel destination in America. What draws people to Charleston is the history, architecture, and food. Our region boasts many of these attributes, although they are more spread out geographically. Two places that do this best in the Albemarle are the towns of Edenton and Manteo. These towns both offer charming walkable historic downtowns which have been beautifully preserved. Their citizens treasure their history and old buildings. Edenton and Manteo both offer unique shopping and dining experiences. A major draw to these towns is the sense of history that is immediately visible when visiting.

Over a decade ago in my home county of Currituck, the county commissioned a survey of historic buildings. What many historically-minded people found shocking in the survey was the number of historic buildings that had been lost in recent years. This led a group of citizens to lobby county government to form the Currituck Historic Preservation Commission. I have personally been honored to serve as the chair of this commission since its inception. One of the major goals of the commission is to designate properties as local historic landmarks. This can only occur when a property owner requests that designation and if successful the property is eligible for substantial local tax reductions. To date, two Currituck houses have been designated as local landmarks with a third currently in the works.

It is my hope that through historic preservation we will generate economic development. In preserving our history, we will create a community that tourists want to visit and that they will feel the sense of pride we have for our local history. The Currituck Historic Preservation Commission has hosted one tour of historic properties in the county that brought out hundreds of people to visit. These visitors spend money in our local economy. On top of the tourism impacts, anyone who has owned an old house knows that they require more maintenance than a newer building. The preservation of a historic home requires paying contractors and handymen often to help with maintenance which generates additional revenue in the local economy.

The Albemarle region was North Carolina’s first area to see European settlement. Some of the counties that exist today were founded as early as 1668. Of course, there were indigenous people here long before that. One thing our region has is an abundance of history. As a region, the Albemarle needs to look to the past as a way to bring about an economically prosperous future.

Historic Preservation does more than just save physical structures; historic preservation aims to cultivate a sense of pride and create community around local history. Historic preservation not only safeguards heritage in a tangible way but also fosters a shared identity among residents. This sense of connection to the past contributes to a collective pride that resonates with both locals and visitors alike. As the community embraces its historical roots, there’s an opportunity for residents to actively participate in the preservation process, ensuring that the stories of the past are not only preserved but also passed down to future generations.

In addition to the economic benefits of historic preservation, there’s a cultural richness that emerges when a community actively engages with its history. Events, such as historical tours and community gatherings centered around heritage, become more than just tourist attractions – they become shared experiences that strengthen the fabric of the community. Community stories provide a tapestry of narratives that, when woven together, create a unique and compelling story. This cultural wealth becomes a source of inspiration for artists, writers, and educators, further enriching the region’s cultural landscape.

Moreover, the Albemarle region’s commitment to historical preservation can serve as a model for sustainable tourism. Balancing the influx of visitors with the need to protect and conserve the environment is crucial for the long-term viability of any tourist destination. By emphasizing the historical and cultural aspects of the region, tourism can be curated in a way that encourages responsible exploration, ensuring that both the natural beauty and historical significance of the Albemarle endure for generations to come.

In essence, the Albemarle region stands at a crossroads, where the preservation of its past intertwines with the possibilities of the future. As the community embraces its history, there’s not only an economic advantage but a deeper, more profound connection that forms between the people and the place they call home. Through a thoughtful and inclusive approach to historic preservation, the Albemarle region has the potential to craft a narrative that captivates the imagination of those who visit, inviting them to become a part of a living history that continues to unfold.