By Katherine Peralta, The Charlotte Observer
Visitor spending hit record highs in the Charlotte region last year, despite headwinds from House Bill 2, North Carolina’s controversial LGBT bill that prompted scores of businesses, performing artists and sports groups to cancel events in the state.
Visitors across the Charlotte region spent more than $6.7 billion last year, according to an annual study conducted by the U.S. Travel Association and commissioned by Visit North Carolina, the state’s tourism arm. Statewide, domestic visitors spent a record $22.9 billion in 2016.
The Charlotte region hosted about 27.8 million visitors in 2016, roughly 1 million more than in 2015, according to the study.
HB2, which Gov. Roy Cooper and the state legislature repealed in March, limited legal protections for LGBT individuals. After former Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill into law in March 2016, tourism agencies across the state warned that HB2 could deter out-of-state travelers from visiting North Carolina.
Maroon 5 and Cirque de Soleil canceled Charlotte shows over opposition to HB2. The ACC pulled its title football game from Charlotte, too. Dozens of business groups relocated conventions from the city.
But Tom Murray, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, noted that many of the announced cancellations last year are for future events, such as the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, which the league relocated to New Orleans. The NBA awarded Charlotte the 2019 game this spring, however. Many of the events the CRVA schedules are three or more years out, he added.
“You have to understand the power of our visitor economy,” Murray said. “It does have the capability of continuing to grow despite tough conditions.”
Murray added, however, that he does not know how much the region’s visitor economy would have grown without HB2.
According to an analysis by the Associated Press released in March, HB2 will cost North Carolina more than $3.76 billion in lost business over the next 12 years, even with the repeal.
Visitors in Mecklenburg County alone spent nearly $5.2 billion last year, representing a rise of 2.4 percent from 2015, and more than any other of North Carolina’s 100 counties, according to the study. Visitors in Mecklenburg spent nearly 2.5 times more than those in Wake County (Raleigh) and nearly 2.5 times more than those in Charleston County in South Carolina.
Thanks to the county’s rapidly growing population, new development and improving economy, Mecklenburg visitor spending has grown by 38.5 percent since 2010, according to the study.