The hand that feeds us often gets bitten on social media
“Tourist: What time does the twelve o’clock ferry leave for Ocracoke?”
“When some tourists pack for vacation… ‘Are we going to pack our brains with us this year? Nah, we don’t have any room for them.’”
Some Facebook pages are full of these and other similar memes and comments made by local residents — posts that can range from humorous to insulting rants and include everything from photos of restaurant receipts from waiters who feel they got shafted on the tip to pictures of the license plates of tourists deemed to be poor drivers.
The explosion of social media has created platforms to complain about tourists at a time when long lines, traffic and other inconveniences of living in a resort town are likely growing. Some Facebook groups such as Outer Banks Life, a secret group called OBXer’s Only Vent About Tourons, and OBX Local Complaints feature locals complaining about visitors, among other things, in selective settings.
But tense exchanges have also surfaced between residents and tourists on public pages.
On one local media outlet’s Facebook page, a resident recently suggested that people not vacation here if they disagreed with a Trump campaign flag flying on a state-operated ferryboat.
That prompted this sharp-elbowed response: “I love OBX, but in so many threads about so many different topics, I hear locals bitching about tourists…You do realize that without us your little island would be nothing.”
Are these digital darts evidence of growing acrimony between residents and visitors or does the spread of social media simply shine more light on sentiments that have always existed? One crucial and related question is whether tourism in Dare County is reaching a saturation point that is leading to more of these tensions.
The consensus among most of the officials interviewed by the Sentinel is that, whatever the online conversation, the actual relationship between locals and tourists hasn’t fundamentally worsened.
“We haven’t seen an uptick in tourists claiming hostility,” says Wit Tuttell, executive director of VisitNC, which operates nine welcome centers across the state, as well as a call center and active website for visitors to the state. “Our southern hospitality sets us apart, and we haven’t seen that change.”
Of social media in general, Tuttell expressed the view that it is a contributing factor to the deepening divides and polarization in the country.
Tom Bennett, the mayor of Southern Shores – a town significantly impacted by summer traffic — does think the social media commentary can send a bad message. “Yes, there is some resentment of tourists, and I think there may be a lack of recognition of what they provide to our world,” he said. “I don’t think we should be discouraging people from coming here, but there are those on Facebook saying that and tourists see that.”
Based on the available data, tourism in Dare County seems to have risen steadily in the last decade or so – with gross meal receipts in 2017 amounting to $257,097,185 compared to $180,478,244 in 2005 and occupancy tax receipts for that same period jumping from $280,427,655 to $479,320,053. (These figures obviously include some inflationary costs.) Another indicator is a recent report that Cape Hatteras National Seashore experienced its busiest June in 16 years.
In this environment, the possibility of “overtourism” has not sailed under the radar of local tourism experts. A buzzword in the industry, it is used to describe a point a community reaches when the negatives of tourism outweigh the positive impact.
“There is clearly a risk of overtourism,” said Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. “That is why we don’t spend more money or energy on the summer, but rather focus on growing our shoulder season and off-season. It doesn’t benefit anyone to cram more people in during the summer.”
Nettles points out that, when factoring in federal and state lands, only 20 percent of Dare County is developed, and it has a limited vacation rental inventory. That fact, he notes, makes it less likely to fall victim to overtourism than places like Asheville, where he said rental inventory has increased by 25 percent in the last few years.
“In some parts of the state, we are worried about overtourism,” added Tuttle of VisitNC. “But we have not hit the level that it’s choking off businesses. I don’t think we are at that point, but we need to be careful we don’t get there.”
As for the Facebook groups and communities that primarily focus on calling out tourists, one administrator characterizes it as a harmless outlet. Randy Shockley, the creator and administrator of the secret Facebook group OBXer’s Only Vent About Tourons, told the Sentinel that: “This is about everyday life down here.”
With about 1,200 members, he estimated that 99 percent of those in the group are in the customer hospitality business and the page simply gives them a venue to let off steam. Shockley said a few years back, he instituted some rules that govern the group, but added, “If they feel like ranting for a minute, there’s no harm about that.”
He stressed that posts geared toward a specific business or individual are not tolerated. “I police that thing every day,” he notes. As for the word “touron,” he said he doesn’t see it as offensive.
Other administrators of similar Facebook pages declined a request by the Sentinel to comment.
Dawn Church is an administrator of OBX Locals, a popular Facebook group that has more than 16,000 members and whose administrators closely monitor it to keep the page free of rants about tourists and other issues. The group shares community events, shares information on lost dogs and is a venue for crowd sourcing questions.
Church noted that a few of the groups that have formed in recent years have been splinter groups of OBX Locals and others whose rules were viewed as too stringent. Of those who tend to vent on Facebook, she said, “People talk in ways they never ever would in real life.”
Speaking about the OBX Locals group members, she added that, “The majority have the mindset that we don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us.” Local officials and those associated with the tourism industry certainly agree with that philosophy.
“When people vilify tourists, I think they really don’t understand,” said Nettles. “Without tourism, our taxes would be so much higher.”
“Think of your favorite restaurant,” added Tuttle. “If it wasn’t for visitors, it probably would not be there.”
Dan Lewis, president of the Outer Banks Restaurant Association, said that when it comes to food service workers complaining about tips on social media, “If I witnessed an employee posting a receipt, they wouldn’t be part of the staff for very long.”
Lewis said that tourists are the lifeblood of the local economy and the reason the community has the schools, a hospital and services they enjoy. “We need to respect, not alienate.”
Manteo Mayor Bobby Owens told the Sentinel it is unfortunate, but a small group of residents have always harbored negative sentiments toward tourists. He said people tend to complain about tourists' driving, but added: “When I see erratic driving and speeding, more times its painters, plumbers [and] carpenters than tourists.”
“I stand confused because when it comes to tourists, they pay our way,” Owens said. "We have the best of the best,” he noted, referring to the services such as schools and Emergency Medical Services in Dare County. “The tourist is paying the freight.”