What does ‘Outer Banks’ mean for the OBX? It’s hard to deny the impact.
By Elizabeth Moore and Korie Dean | Staff Writers
The sun had just set behind the dunes of Jockey’s Ridge State Park, and dozens of people — young and old, tourists and locals — settled in on the lawn outside the staged Kildare Island Surfboard Co. on Croatan Highway.
They fixed their eyes on an inflatable projection screen, anticipating the premiere of the second season of Netflix’s “Outer Banks,” a fictional teen drama that splashed onto the streaming scene at the start of the pandemic.
Kitty Hawk Surf Co. temporarily masqueraded as the Kildare Island business in reference to the fictional setting in the series. The shop was covered in show-themed window graphics featuring John B and Sarah Cameron, two protagonists. Inside, customers purchased T-shirts, shorts and hats from the official “Outer Banks” merchandise line, which Netflix created in partnership with Volcom.
The apparel is sold in about 400 stores nationwide but in Nags Head, Volcom partnered with Kitty Hawk Surf Co. to create a unique, exclusive store build-out that physically connects customers’ love of the fictional show to the real Outer Banks.
“It’s the heartbeat of the show,” said Chris Martinez, Volcom’s North American retail marketing and special events manager. “It only makes sense to offer this within the Outer Banks and to create this kind of experience, especially being able to touch so many different people.”
Reactions to the hit show on the barrier islands have been mixed. Some locals say it accurately represents the essence of their home, while some struggle to reconcile that the show wasn’t filmed on the Outer Banks or in North Carolina.
Regardless of its reception, it’s hard to deny the series, along with a widespread itch to travel domestically during the coronavirus pandemic, has had a significant impact on tourism in the area.
Hit show spotlights OBX
“Outer Banks” launched on Netflix on April 15, 2020, and became streaming giant’s No. 1 show within weeks.
The barrier islands were closed to nonresidents from March to May of last year due to the pandemic, but the show’s impact on tourism already was becoming apparent.
Between April 15 and May 15 of last year, the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau’s website traffic grew by 61%, compared with the same time period in 2019, said Lee Nettles, the executive director of the visitors bureau. Traffic to the bureau’s merchandise page grew by more than 4,400%.
Around the same time the show launched, the itch for travel kicked in around the country due to pandemic lockdowns. When the islands reopened at 12:01 a.m. May 16, 2020, tourists flocked to the Wright Memorial Bridge to get a place in line.
The Outer Banks, with its wide-open spaces for recreation and relaxation, made the region ripe for visitors during the pandemic, Nettles said. The renewed tourism was largely a welcome sight in the region, which has relied heavily on the industry since the 1970s and ’80s.
“Tourism is far and away our primary economic engine,” Nettles said. “It’s been that way for generations, really.”
Nettles couldn’t say for certain whether the show had a direct impact on tourism, but said he thinks the show brought more name recognition to the region and piqued tourists’ curiosity.
‘Phenomenal’ summer for tourism
Alicia and Jay Sutherland have seen the recent tourism boom firsthand as Airbnb co-hosts in the area.
“This is definitely the most crowded tourism summer I think we’ve ever had,” Alicia Sutherland said.
The Sutherlands have lived on the Outer Banks since they got married 24 years ago. Jay Sutherland’s parents moved to the area 24 years before that.
Recently, Alicia started playing a game: She would count how many different states were represented on license plates around Kitty Hawk. She reached 35 in two weeks.
“I don’t remember it ever being that way,” she said.
The area used to be “crickets” after Labor Day, Alicia Sutherland said. But over the past 15 years or so, the busy season has extended well into the fall.
That led the Sutherlands to invest in a bargain price condo in early March 2020. They listed the property as a short-term rental on Airbnb.com and started getting bookings within two hours.
When the islands closed weeks later, the fate of their listing was uncertain. But since the islands reopened, bookings at the Sutherlands’ properties haven’t slowed.
Word spread among their friends about their new business venture, and the couple now co-host 11 Airbnb properties in and around Kitty Hawk. This year, the town was No. 8 in top destinations based on Airbnb search data.
The heightened popularity also is reflected in local numbers. The Outer Banks has been collecting record occupancy tax revenue every month from June last year through May from visitor bookings, Nettles said.
“So it’s been pretty phenomenal,” he said.
A study by an apartment news site, RENTCafé Blog, found the Outer Banks as No. 1 on its ranking of “Most Resilient U.S. Destinations During Lockdown,” ahead of Yellowstone National Park. According to its analysis of Google search data, the Outer Banks saw the smallest drop in interest: 25%, compared with the 78% drop of interest for Brooklyn, New York.
Why the show isn’t filmed in NC
“Outer Banks” nods to real North Carolina geographies and culture throughout its first and second seasons, name-dropping places such as Figure Eight Island and Masonboro, and featuring the logo of North Carolina-based soda Cheerwine throughout the sets.
To the chagrin of some locals, though, neither season was filmed on the real-life chain of barrier islands, or anywhere in the state.
The show’s creators — twin brothers and North Carolina natives Jonas and Josh Pate along with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alumnus Shannon Burke — envisioned filming the show in Wilmington, which was once a hub of the film industry before the state ended its tax credit incentive program for the industry in 2014.
But Netflix opted to film the show elsewhere due to anti-LGBTQ legislation passed by North Carolina’s General Assembly, including House Bill 2, the controversial 2016 law also known as “the bathroom bill.” The law required people to use the public restrooms that corresponded to the sex on their birth certificate, rather than their gender. House Bill 142, which in 2017 partially repealed House Bill 2, included a provision that prohibited North Carolina cities from enacting nondiscrimination ordinances until it expired on Dec. 1, 2020.
Filming for both seasons of “Outer Banks” instead took place largely in Charleston, South Carolina, where the trio of creators brought to life their fictionalized “amalgam” of places along the North Carolina coast.
Similarities to the real Outer Banks
Although viewers won’t see any images from the real Outer Banks on their screens, some locals say the show at least somewhat accurately captures the essence of the barrier islands.
With more than 100 miles of beaches and coastline, the Outer Banks is almost synonymous with water — and in the show, there’s no shortage of scenes where protagonist John B and the rest of the Pogues cruise through the sound in their boat or surf some “burly lefts” out in the ocean.
“I think (the show) is kind of centered around being on the water and being a culture that’s driven by the water, and so in that regard, I think we share some similarities,” Nettles said.
Beyond the physical landscape, the show also alludes to much of the region’s way of life.
Jessie McClary, an art teacher at First Flight High School in Kill Devil Hills and a 22-year resident of the Outer Banks, said she sees many similarities between the show’s characters and local high school students, including her daughter and her friends.
“The way those kids care about each other and take care of each other — they do that here,” she said.
McClary’s 17-year-old daughter, Gabi, said that she and her friends spend their summers the same way that the Pogues do — minus the treasure hunting and violence, of course.
“Working in restaurants, going to the beach, hanging out, going out on the boat in the sound, that’s what we have to do here,” Gabi McClary said. “And I think that they did a good job of showing that.”
For locals, the recent increased tourism in the region can be both a blessing and a curse.
While the influx of tourists does overrun the ordinarily small, quiet region,
it supports the local economy.
“What people don’t realize is that we couldn’t live here without the tourism,” Jessie McClary said.
Alec Daniel, an 18-year-old from Gloucester County, visits the area each year with his family. The “Outer Banks” show fan stopped by the Kildare Island Surfboard Co. pop-up event in Nags Head last week and proudly wore a “Kook Princess” shirt from the Volcom line.
“This is somewhere that I’ve been my whole life,” Daniel said, “so it was cool to watch a show about this place.”