Visitor spending in Johnston County topped $200 million in 2013, according to state figures.
A study commissioned by the state’s Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development found that visitors who traveled more than 50 miles to Johnston County spent $204.5 million last year, an increase of 3.5 percent from the $197.7 million spent in 2012.
The study, conducted by the U.S. Travel Association, uses employment tallies, sales figures and industry data to produce estimates of how much visitors spend on hotel stays, food, transportation, retail items and recreation.
“As long as we are showing growth, I feel like the things we are doing in the community are helping drive those numbers up,” said Donna Bailey-Taylor, director of the Johnston County Visitors Bureau.
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The Visitors Bureau markets the county’s various offerings through traditional and social media. The bureau operates under the Johnston County Tourism Authority, which receives funding from a 3-percent hotel-occupancy tax approved by state lawmakers in 1987.
Bailey-Taylor said with destinations like Carolina Premium Outlets in Smithfield and JR discount outlet in Selma, shopping is the main reason people visit the county. However, she said, visitors are increasingly stopping at the county’s wineries and breweries.
The Visitors Bureau recently launched the Beer, Wine and Shine Trail, which highlights the four wineries and two breweries in six Johnston towns. Hotels offer discounts for visitors on the trail, and travelers who go to each destination receive a $30 coupon book.
Across the state in 2013, Johnston ranked 22nd in “travel impact,” or the total amount that visitors spent. In addition, researchers say more than 1,660 jobs in the county are tied to travel and tourism, generating a $30.4 million payroll last year. State and local tax revenues from travel totaled about $16.2 million, according to the study.
Other popular attractions included Bentonville Battleground, Clemmons Educational State Forest near Clayton, the Tobacco Farm Life Museum in Kenly and the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield.
Deanna Brandenberger, hired in July as the new executive director of the Ava Gardner Museum, said she wants to keep things fresh to attract return visitors.
The museum, which attracts about 10,000 visitors annually, will introduce new exhibits this fall in conjunction with the Ava Gardner Festival, which runs Oct. 3-5. One of the exhibits, titled “Ava’s Closet,” will showcase the movie star’s personal fashion.
“We want to have something that will keep the appetites whetted,” Brandenberger said.
In the past 20 years, visitor spending in Johnston County has only decreased twice from year to year, in 1998 and 2009, according to historical data. Since 2004, spending has increased by about $70 million, or about 52 percent.
Across the state, visitors spent the most in Mecklenburg County ($4.6 billion), followed by Wake ($1.9 billion) and Guilford ($1.2 billion).