A Comparison of Visitors and Residents On Motivations for Visiting North Carolina Recreational Beaches


Adequate use and management of America's recreational beaches has received great focus over the past several years. Many studies have been conducted relating to visitor satisfaction, perceived environmental quality, and social- and resource-based elements of carrying capacity. However, very little research has examined the motivations of tourists to visit specific beaches based on site-specific social, physical, and managerial attributes.

Often, users are categorized according to activity participation, motivations, or demographic attributes such as age, group size, and duration of visit. Management agencies are largely responsible for determining the recreational composition of a beach visitor's experience through site-specific rules and regulations that govern these areas.

North Carolina possesses 3,375 miles of coastline with a variety of ecological and social characteristics suitable for an array of recreational activities (North Carolina DENR, 2002). In 1999, approximately 11 million domestic visitors traveled to North Carolina's coastal region. This number is further increased by international tourists and local residents who permanently reside at or near these beach areas. It is plausible that resident perceptions of beach attributes may differ significantly from those of visitors because of a heightened sense of ownership toward, and more accurate knowledge of, the beach itself.


The coastal zone has experienced significant change in recent years, not only from a natural perspective, but also within the realms of visitor demographics and economics (Colgan, 2003). The economic well-being of much of coastal North Carolina depends on the seasonal flux of beach tourism. In 2003, North Carolina was the sixth most visited state for tourism, hosting more than 49 million visitors statewide. According to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, tourism within the state in 2003 accounted for $12.6 billion in expenditures and supported 183,220 jobs tied directly to the industry (North Carolina Department of Commerce, 2004). A study by Marlowe and Company estimates that the eight North Carolina counties directly bordering the Atlantic Ocean generated $12.538 billion in beach-related revenues in the year 2002 (Marlowe and Associates, 2004). Beach-related activities are reported among the most popular tourism outlets in the state, shadowed only by shopping and attending social/family events (North Carolina Department of Commerce, 2004). While coastal tourism provides great economic opportunity for coastal communities, the potential for conflict also exists between visitors and residents of coastal recreational areas. Resident users of recreational beaches have the potential to feel greater ownership of these areas because of geographic proximity. Issues such as crowding, traffic congestion, and negative environmental impacts are aspects that coastal residents cannot easily escape without leaving their homes during the summer recreational beach season. Sociodemographic and personal values of recreational user groups are proven determinants of recreational setting and activity preference (Edwards, 1981; Wilson, 1981; Pitts and Woodside, 1986; Henderson, 1994). While a primary goal of nearly all public and recreational land management agencies is to maximize visitor satisfaction (Ditton, Graefe, and Fedler, 1981), the fragmented relationship between visitors and local beach residents needs to be addressed as well. Nurturing relationships between government and coastal communities has the potential to reduce user conflict, obtain greater levels of protection and stewardship of coastal areas, and increase recreational satisfaction of all user groups.

Methods, Tools, and Data


Data were collected from July to November 2003 at seven recreational beaches along the North Carolina coast by means of an on-site survey questionnaire. An array of federal, state, and local municipalities manage the beaches under observation. Such governing agencies include the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, and county and local municipalities. Questions were designed to demonstrate the full diversity of potential recreational beach experiences. Such variables include preferences for social attributes, natural attributes, and components related to administrative and managerial services.

A comparison between coastal visitors and coastal residents was conducted focusing on differences in importance levels that various attributes possess in creating a positive recreational beach experience. Beach users were asked to rate on a seven-point Likert scale how important a series of individual beach attributes are to them when visiting a coastal recreation area with a score of 1=not important and 7=very important. Survey respondents were also asked the question, do you consider yourself a visitor/tourist or a local, for the purpose of group comparison. A series of independent sample t-tests were conducted to compare the mean beach attribute scores of visitor and resident user groups.

Related Methods

A standardized list of questions that may be administered formally or informally by mail, telephone, Internet, or in person to collect specific information from multiple individuals.

Discussion of Results

Many social attributes under observation were found to possess significant differences between beach visitors and residents. Socially, visitors reported significantly higher importance levels for safety and security, opportunities to relax, and the value an area possesses as a traditional family vacation destination. These items seem to naturally gravitate toward nonresident preferences. It is likely that residents of a coastal area would view other areas as their family vacation site of choice. Safety and security may not be as important due to a greater familiarity of their surroundings, and opportunities to relax would likely be greater away from their own "backyards" in a place farther away from work, responsibility, and daily logistics of life. Residents reported a significantly higher importance score for pets being required on a leash. While more traditional vacationers (nonresidents) appear to be more prone to letting their dogs run free on the seashore, residents may have greater awareness of problems associated with stray pets, such as harassment of nesting shorebirds and other beachgoers.

Natural attributes possessed very few significant differences among observed user groups. Visitors place significantly greater importance levels on the presence and significance of historical structures (lighthouses, lifesaving stations, etc.). Perhaps this could be attributed to the visitors' purpose of travel. Coastal North Carolina possesses some of the most well-known historical lighthouses in the U.S. Sites such as Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores host millions of visitors each year. Interestingly, residents preferred beach areas with relatively small wave size. This is an interesting finding because many resident survey respondents were surfers.

Nearly every managerial and amenity-related attribute under observation received a significantly higher importance ranking from the nonresident user group. This does not seem out-of-place given that residents have a greater ability to access food, shelter, and restrooms. Visitors placed significantly greater importance levels on the visible presence of both management personnel (law enforcement) and lifeguards on the beach. The only attribute ranked significantly higher by the resident population was boat access.

Management Implications

According to the responses of recreational tourist and resident groups, it appears that there is a dichotomy of recreational use that exists on the North Carolina coast. From a coastal management perspective, these findings are significant and should be considered when implementing recreation-related policies. Though coastal tourists in many ways give life to coastal communities in terms of finances, it is the residents who call these places home, and they should receive the same considerations as tourists when management decisions are made. While significant differences exist between preferences and satisfaction for many observed attributes, it appears that compromises concerning recreational amenities and social behaviors are highly attainable.

Related Partners

NOAA is a federal agency focused on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere. It plays several distinct roles within the Department of Commerce.


  • This case study is part of a doctoral dissertation requirement for the Coastal Resources Management doctoral program at East Carolina University. This project was conducted by Chris Ellis, under the guidance of Dr. Hans Vogelsong. They can be contacted by e-mail: Chris Ellis, chris.ellis@noaa.gov; Hans Vogelsong, vogelsongh@ecu.edu.

Books and Publications

  • Colgan, C. S. 2003. "The Changing Ocean and Coastal Economy of the United States: A Briefing Paper for Conference Participants." National Governors Association Center for Best Practices Conference, Waves of Change: Examining the Role of States in Emerging Ocean Policy. Portland: University of Southern Maine.

  • Ditton, R., A. Graefe, and A. Fedler. 1981. "Recreational Satisfaction at Buffalo National River: Some Measurement Concerns." In Some Recent Products of River Recreation Research (GTR NC-63, p. 9-17). St. Paul MN: North Central Forest Experiment Station, U.S. Forest Service.

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  • Henderson, K. 1994. "Broadening an Understanding of Women, Gender, and Leisure." Journal of Leisure Research. Volume 26. Pages 1 - 17.

  • Marlowe and Associates. 2004. "The Value of America's Beaches to the Economy." On-line at http://www.law.sc.edu/environmental/papers/200511/elsc/free.pdf, as of January 16, 2009.

  • North Carolina Department of Commerce. 2014. "Economic Impact of Tourism in North Carolina." On-line at https://www.nccommerce.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=zxG8QFXwrYY%3D&tabid=1547&mid=4666, as of September 23, 2014.

  • Pitts, R. E., and A. G. Woodside. 1986. "Personal Values and Travel Decisions." Journal of Travel Research. Volume 25, Number 1. Pages 20 - 25.

  • Wilson, W. J. 1981. The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.