A record number of people visited the Raleigh area last year, but event organizers say they are worried a new state law that requires people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their birth gender will hurt tourism in the coming years.
Raleigh and Wake County collected a record $49.3 million in hotel and food taxes during the fiscal year that ended June 30, said Dennis Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Edwards announced several record-breaking statistics during his group’s annual meeting Tuesday with leaders of the Raleigh Convention Center, which opened in 2007. Most of his presentation focused on the center’s impact on local tourism.
Hotels throughout Wake County had a 70 percent occupancy rate through June. Downtown Raleigh hotels, which regularly contract with the convention center, reported June occupancy rates of 76 percent – better than the state and national occupancy average of about 65 percent, Edwards said.
“It is doing extremely well,” he said of the center. “A lot of convention centers around the country go after the same groups. We’re being very deliberate. We know where our strengths are: academic groups, technology groups, etc.”
Edwards hesitated to project continued growth in the coming years.
Some event organizers canceled plans to bring their groups to Wake after the state legislature adopted House Bill 2, the visitors bureau reported earlier this year. Some people say the law is discriminatory toward the transgender community.
Edwards said tax revenues collected from tourism-related purchases aren’t likely to decline until 2017 or 2018.
“Short term, we weren’t necessarily as impacted (this year), but we will see the impact,” he said. “We’re very worried, really, about this fiscal year. ... Most of the cancellations we had were for 2017.”
Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican who represents Wake County, said in an interview Tuesday he doesn’t anticipate HB2 will directly affect local tourism.
“I think Raleigh, the Triangle, will continue to draw the interest of tourists and conference-goers,” he said.
Nelson said the region is ideal for amateur sports, including tennis, golf and baseball. Raleigh’s restaurant scene has also improved, he said.
“People see the value and see the amenities,” he said. “I see our region and the Triangle continuing to build upon the strong foundation that’s been laid.”
But Todd Lewis, creator and chairman of the annual All Things Open tech conference in Raleigh, said some companies have dropped their sponsorships of his event because of HB2.
“We are seeing the impact of it personally,” said Lewis, who spoke to the crowd after Edwards.
Edwards noted that this year’s numbers were bolstered by the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which North Carolina may struggle to bring back because of HB2.
The 10 tournament games held at PNC Arena between March 17-19 drew more than 19,600 visitors and generated $4.6 million in economic spending, the bureau reported earlier this year.
In late March, NCAA President Mark Emmert said HB2 puts the state at risk of not hosting future NCAA events because many think it’s discriminatory. The NCAA has since mandated that host cities “demonstrate how they will provide an environment that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination, plus safeguards the dignity of everyone involved in the event.”
Raleigh boosters are in the bidding to host future NCAA events and expect to hear back this fall, Edwards said.
Staff writer Sarah Nagem contributed to this report.