Robeson County would be much healthier economically if tourism had not emerged as one of our leading local industries. But if tourism had not emerged, then this county would had dried up and disappeared with the next strong breeze.
Allow us to explain what sounds like a contradiction.
Robeson County, although historically one of the poorer counties in North Carolina because of a deep-rooted indifference toward education and a population that was denied opportunity for so many generations, managed economically for decades on the backs of textiles and agriculture. Contrary to what many believe, textile workers were paid a decent wage and they enjoyed nice benefits; additionally, there used to be a lot of money to be made growing tobacco, a $100 million-a-year industry in this county that also provided hundreds of support jobs. The cash crop now is one-fifth what it once was after the Clinton administration’s successful campaign against cigarettes in the mid-199os.
Today, health care, education, local government, manufacturing and welfare are our biggest industries, with tourism right behind.
According to a recently released study by the U.S. Travel Association, tourism contributed about $127 million to the Robeson County economy during 2013, ranking us 33rd among the state’s 100 counties. Those are dollars that are spent multiple times before exiting the county, so the local economic benefit is in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Additionally, according to the study, 1,050 Robesonians were employed in the tourism industry through 16 labor categories, including lodging, dinning, transportation, retail and recreation.
There are ongoing efforts to enhance this county’s attractiveness to tourists, but perhaps none with more potential than building horse stalls at the Southeastern North Carolina Agricultural Events Center so that it is equipped to play host to multi-day equestrian events. People who own horses and travel to shows typically have plenty of money.
This is the benefit of the major highways that bless this county — especially Interstate 95 — and bring travelers within a quick stop of a hotel, restaurant or service station. We prefer not to think of what this county would have been had I-95 been routed west of here as once was planned.
All that is the good news.
The bad is too many people who work in tourism aren’t making a livable wage, don’t have benefits and depend on welfare. According to the study, those 1,050 people earned $18.49 million, meaning the average income was about $17,600, which is not a livable wage.
A lot of people who work in these jobs are part-time employees, many of whom are just earning spending money while they continue their education. But for too many, their job in tourism has become a destination and not a quick stop.