ROWLAND — More than 350 million people have visited the nine North Carolina Welcome Centers, according to Mark Shore, director of Visiting and Marketing at Visit North Carolina.
And about 75 people came out Wednesday to celebrate that accomplishment during the 50th Anniversary of the Welcome Center Program at the Interstate 95 South Welcome Center.
“The welcome centers have done well over the past 50 year primarily because of the people who work there,” said Brian Gupton, director of Visitor Service. “The Welcome Center staff are very well-trained, and they take great pride in showing off our state and sharing with visitors all of the things we have to see and do.”
The event’s special guest was North Carolina First Lady Kristin Cooper, who spoke about the importance of the Welcome Center staff.
“It’s 5o years that you guys have been doing this and that’s pretty astounding,” Cooper said. “I just really want to commend and thank all of the dedicated professionals from across the state.”
Cooper said tourism will always be important to the state.
“A lot of things have changed here since 1968, but a few basic things haven’t,” Cooper said. “About 90 percent of our visitors travel by car here in North Carolina, and a big smile and a warm welcome continue to be the hallmark of North Carolina’s famous hospitality.”
Those attending were entertained by the former Miss North Carolina Victoria Huggins, who played the mandolin and sang “Wagon Wheel,” with a few extra North Carolina references. The newly crowned Lumbee Ambassadors paid tribute to the state by singing “Carolina in the Morning.” Kaya Littleturtle, the Lumbee Tribe’s Cultural coordinator, spoke about cultural tourism.
Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. gave an update on the tribe and its accomplishments. His wife, Shelia Godwin, gave Cooper a handmade tribal shawl.
“It’s a gift from one first lady to another first lady,” Chairman Godwin said.
“I’ll wear it with pride. I’m very honored,” Cooper said.
State Rep. Charles Graham said Robeson County has had many firsts for the state of North Carolina, including the Dixie Youth World Series being held in Lumberton and the Pembroke team winning the Dixie Softball World Series championship.
“You are the first face that our tourist see when they come into our state,” Graham said about the center’s staff. “You are the first, and you do it with pleasure, and you do it with a lot of pride.”
Graham said North Carolina’s second largest source of revenue is tourism, with it being a $23 billion industry. In 2013, Robeson County received $127 million in revenue, and 1,000 jobs were created in the county because of tourism.
“Isn’t that amazing?” Graham said. “Tourism is a big deal.”
Not many states have the mountains, the Piedmont and the coast, Gupton said.
This makes the state unique, he said.
“I’m old enough to remember the slogan was ‘Variety Vacationland,’” said George Sherrill, the chief of staff at the Department of Commerce. “To me that’s what it really is because I am a North Carolina native and it’s ‘Variety Vacationland.”
The I-95 South center first opened on Nov. 21, 1973, and was renovated in 2009.
Some major renovations will begin in 2020, said Kat Littleturtle, the center’s manager. The center will be torn down and rebuilt with the bathrooms and main facility under one roof.
“The whole 50 years has been about bringing our travelers in and showing off North Carolina, and so that will just continue,” she said. “The pattern has been set and all we have to do is continue that pattern.”