City tourism numbers up significantly

Tom JoyceStaff Reporter

October 9, 2012

A healthy rise in visitors to Mount Airy has been logged in recent months, and the Autumn Leaves Festival — the city’s biggest event, to be held this weekend — isn’t even here yet.

Increases in tourist numbers, including a 19 percent jump in September from the previous year, are credited partly to visitors responding to the death of Andy Griffith, as well as ongoing marketing efforts.

“Many visitors are coming to pay their respects to Andy Griffith after his passing, including the months of July, August and September,” according to Jessica Icenhour Roberts, director of tourism for the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce. Roberts is also involved with the city Tourism Development Authority.

For many, it’s been a kind of pilgrimage to soak up Mayberry atmosphere and places linked to Griffith, who died in Manteo on July 3.

“We have received several cards and voice mails from people all over the world sending their condolences and saying they want to come visit Andy’s hometown because it will make them feel closer to him, and they want to visit where he grew up,” Roberts explained.

She presented a quarterly tourism report to the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners last week which detailed how traffic at the Mount Airy Visitors Center downtown has increased since the summer.

In July, the month of Griffith’s death, 7,970 visitors were greeted by the center’s staff, which was up nearly 10 percent from July 2011.

That trend continued in August, when 7,002 people visited — 12 percent higher than the corresponding month the year before.

But the largest gain in tourism numbers came in September with 7,672 people greeted, representing a 19 percent hike from September 2011 totals. The annual Mayberry Days celebration was held at the end of the month.

Marketing Campaigns

Aside from the Andy Griffith factor, Roberts attributes the recent tourism gains to various promotional programs that seem to be paying dividends.

“Our marketing efforts are very important in luring more visitors to Mount Airy and bringing back return visitors as well,” she added.

“We have hosted over 50-plus travel writers over the past year and have participated in several marketing media missions by the N.C. Division of Tourism, and continue to participate in the cooperative opportunities provided by the N.C. Division of Tourism as well.”

While Roberts mentioned increased use of social media websites, old-fashioned word of mouth has been the biggest visitation medium, based on comments from tourists arriving at the visitors center, who are tracked as to their places of origin.

During the August-September period, people came here from 47 states, with only New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming not represented.

In September, international visitors were noted from such locations as Australia, Germany, South Africa and Scotland.

Surry County has seen tourism growth as well as Mount Airy, which Roberts said is a result of a continued partnership between the Mount Airy Tourism Development Authority and Tourism Partnership of Surry County. It involves officials of all the county’s municipalities working to bring in more people to experience local wineries, outdoor recreation and other activities in addition to Mayberry attractions.

The emphasis has been on tourists spending more money and staying longer, according to Roberts.

The Andy “Connection”

Interest in the Andy Griffith part of the tourism equation remains strong, judging by the latest visitor center numbers as well as heavy attendance at Mayberry Days events.

And Roberts sees no reason why that might change.

“We will continue to see an influx of visitors,” she predicted, “those who will be coming to pay homage to Andy and visit such places as the Andy Griffith Museum and Andy Griffith Homeplace.

“All of these visitors mention on a weekly basis that they continue to watch ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and feel a connection to the show.”

Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or tjoyce@heartlandpublications.com.