Orange County Tourism

Hillsborough Handmade Parade


By Laurie Paolicelli

In an area like Chapel Hill, where the tourism industry isn’t as obvious as it is in, say, Orlando or Las Vegas, Aspen or Nashville, many wonder what our local tourism actually looks like around campus and throughout Orange County.

That’s a reasonable question. We’re known as a college town area, after all, and in some college towns the tourism industry is limited to those times of the year parents are picking up and dropping off their kids. That may indeed have been where our tourism industry started. But the fact is, UNC is where many industries in Orange County began: service industries from hardware stores to beauty salons, bookstores to coffee shops. UNC can be credited for the creation of the town itself! So tourism is a concept that would be baked into the idea of a university.

But what a tourism industry it has become. 

It turns out there’s more here than anybody ever thought possible. There’s a demand for what this area has to offer visitors. That’s why the Visitors Bureau, local economic development agents, area hotels, and the hospitality industry work together to share the good news, to provide service to thousands of requests for information, sponsor events that have potential to draw more tourists here, and to provide amenities to conferences and help our economy thrive.

With a leading University as our centerpiece, and cutting-edge musicians, chefs, scientists, and scholars who choose to call Orange County home, the table is set for future growth of the tourism industry. Statistics tell part of the story, and the NC Department of Commerce has them, showing that demand for Orange County’s tourism industry has grown each year.

Here are top events, (in addition to Tar Heel sports), that have brought national visitors to Orange County in the last ten years:

  • TerraVita
  • Carrboro Music Fest
  • Cat’s Cradle (live music)
  • Memorial Hall (dance, music)
  • PlayMakers Repertory Company
  • ArtsCenter Carrboro performances
  • FestiFall
  • 4th of July at Kenan Stadium
  • Tar Heel 10 Miler
  • 919 Film Festival
  • Carrboro Film Festival
  • Fridays on the Front Porch
  • Presidential campaigning on campus
  • Hillsborough’s Handmade Parade
  • Paperhand Puppet Intervention at Forrest Theatre
  • Outdoor music performances at Southern Village
  • Morehead Science Fair
  • North Carolina Literary Festival, a biennial event that rotated between Duke, North Carolina State, and UNC. The four-day event was designed to highlight North Carolina authors and readers.
  • Farm to Fork tasting event in Hillsborough
  • Black Alumni Reunion and other General Alumni Association reunions

Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro

As they say, these wonderful events do not happen by themselves. Event planners hire local trucks, equipment, machines, exhibition services, food, hotels, tents, staffers – and the list goes on. That’s one reason the tourism industry pumped $218 million into the economy in 2019. Tourism not only creates jobs, it sustains them while encouraging growth in the primary and secondary sectors of industry. This is known as the multiplier effect, which, in its simplest form, measures how many times money spent by a tourist circulates through a community’s economy.

The majority of Orange County’s guests are from the mid-Atlantic—the area from Washington DC to Atlanta, but every month this area hosts visitors from across the U.S. and globally as well. People come a long way to get here. As places like the Research Triangle Park have grown, so has Orange County, because Orange County is where people come looking for entertainment and connection.

That scenario is the perfect recipe for a tourism industry, because as more people discover North Carolina, Research Triangle Park and Orange County, everyone wins. The visitor supports jobs and makes plans for a return visit; the community sees an infusion of guests and dollars, a rising tide for us all.

The tourists we speak of are not here now, in the long winter of 2021, but this is not a lament. It’s a preview of coming attractions. Think of it as being like looking at a menu: we can’t taste the food yet, but we can imagine how good it will be when we do. And there is a lot to taste here in Orange County. We look forward to seeing you when the coast is clear, when we can all celebrate our bounty together.

Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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