Corolla's wild horses and uncrowded beaches spur a thriving tourism industry in Currituck County, even if visitors don't know which county they're in.
Currituck promotes itself across the eastern United States as the Currituck Outer Banks, but people are not remembering or caring much about the name, according to a $77,000 study done for the county.
"In people's minds, they are not going to Currituck," Steve Chandler, owner of Tennessee based company called Chandlerthinks, said this week. "They're going to the Outer Banks or Corolla."
Chandler conducted the study last summer and fall and reported results to county commissioners last week.
Currituck tourism is flourishing despite the disconnect with the name, the study showed. Corolla averages about 55,000 people a week during the peak season from June to September. Tourists spent $231 million in Currituck in 2017 compared to $137.7 million five years earlier, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Lodging tax revenues — a tourism industry indicator — rose to $12 million last year from $9.3 million in 2009.
Corolla is perceived to be the most affluent community on the Outer Banks, the study said. Not having a night life was considered a plus. Groups average eight people and mostly come from North Carolina and Virginia followed by Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York.
One in five has come to Corolla more than 21 times, suggesting families return year after year, the study said. Corolla got a satisfaction rating of 4.8 out of 5 when the average is about 3 of 5, said Tameron Kugler, director of Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism.
"The brand loyalty is amazing," Kugler said. "People get attached. It's kind of like going home every summer."
One drawback was heavy traffic on N.C. 12.
Corolla's wild horses lead the Currituck attractions and the county leans heavily on their fame in its advertising campaigns. Photos and videos sprinkle the website, social media posts and billboards.
About 100 wild horses descended from Spanish mustangs roam the remote beaches north of Corolla where there are no paved roads. The only access to the dozens of beach rental properties is by four-wheel drive vehicles on the beach. A national wildlife refuge covers much of the area.
When a stallion and his harem of a mares and foals gallop along the surf, crowds gather to take photographs or videos to post on social media. Groups of horses often graze on the lawns of multimillion-dollar beach rental homes. Wild horse tours operated out of Corolla are a big business.
"I know of no place else in the country that has that," Chandler said.
A Grandy farm is home to horses removed from the Outer Banks because of sickness or a propensity to stray into the Corolla village. The farm horses become accustomed to humans.
Once a week, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund hosts "meet a mustang" in Corolla using the farm-kept horses. The event could be held more often and the public could be invited to the mainland farm on occasion, said herd manager Meg Puckett.
But it never gets old seeing wild horses in their habitat, Puckett said.
"Every time I see the wild horses on the beach I think, oh this is amazing," she said.
The study also showed the Currituck County mainland has great potential for growth. Travelers drive down the N.C. 168 and U.S. 158 corridor through mainland Currituck for 40 miles before reaching the Outer Banks. The biggest attractions along the highway include the Grave Digger monster truck site, Sanctuary Vineyards, the H2OBX Waterpark and Weeping Radish Farm Brewery.
"That is the golden highway," Chandler said.
A hotel near Point Harbor would be beneficial, Chandler said. Ecotourism on the Currituck Sound could be better developed, he said.
The study results came from personal surveys of visitors and thousands of email questionnaires, and included input from county staff and business leaders.