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ECU Vice Chancellor Deirdre Mageean spoke at the climate and tourism workshop held at ECU Nov. 14 - 15. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Researchers Study Climate’s Effect on State Tourism

By Christine Neff

An economy that depends on tourism often depends on the weather.

This relationship and its impact on one of North Carolina’s most important industries is being studied by East Carolina University researchers involved with ECU’s Center for Sustainable Tourism.

In November, the center hosted a workshop on campus where faculty members and students joined policymakers, business leaders and scientists from around the region to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the tourism industry here.

“Weather and climate events are critical in shaping the natural environment and social structures of our world,” Scott Curtis, a climatologist in ECU’s geography department, told the crowd. He gave the example of New Orleans, saying the city “would be a very different place now if not for Hurricane Katrina.”

Like New Orleans, North Carolina is susceptible to weather disasters, such as hurricanes, freezing rain events, heat waves and droughts. “Each of these poses a unique challenge to tourism operations,” Curtis said.

Tourism is a major economic driver for the state. From the ski resorts of western North Carolina to the beaches of the Outer Banks, the industry accounts for $1.7 billion in travel expenditures and $4.2 billion in payroll. Almost 200,000 residents depend on tourism for employment.

“We know that tourism is significant to our communities,” said Patrick Long, director of the Center for Sustainable Tourism. Without it, he said, many community amenities, such as restaurants, convenience stores, retail shopping, cultural, education and historic offerings, special events and outdoor recreation opportunities, would decline or disappear.

Long said researchers also know that climate and weather significantly impact tourism in the type of activities offered and the consistency and length of the tourism season. For instance, climate changes that prompt an earlier spring could shorten the season at the state’s ski resorts, and rising sea levels along the Atlantic Coast could hurt the state’s beach resorts. “Climate is perhaps the most important influence on travel choices,” Long said.

Which is why ECU researchers have taken up the issue with enthusiasm. Faculty and student research on the subject looks at a variety of factors, from preferences toward “green” practices in the hospitality industry to tourists’ perceptions of climate in the Outer Banks and the impact of tourism on community life.

“Our university has, for some time now, been conducting research and offering education about climate science and related issues,” Deirdre Mageean, ECU vice chancellor for research and graduate studies, said. “This type of collaboration is absolutely critical to address these important questions.”

This page originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at