Asheville’s tourism rebounded in 2021, along with growth of new residents

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Business owners and the president of Explore Asheville said they are confident the tourism industry rebounded strongly in 2021, and said at times it exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

Explore Asheville President and CEO Victoria Isley said Asheville’s location and atmosphere led to the rebound. 


What You Need to Know 

Explore Asheville says vacation rentals in 2021 and 2020 exceeded pre-pandemic 2019 

Hotel occupancy rates through November of 2021 had almost returned to 2019 levels and had already outpaced 2020 

Asheville Regional Airport said it saw a record summer season and October  


“Thankfully, because of Asheville’s geographic location, it’s fresh mountain air and open spaces, we fared much better than many other places in the country,” Isley said about the 2021 tourism business.

Average hotel occupancy in 2021 through November was 69%, up from 49% in 2020. However, average hotel occupancy has not returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2019. In 2019, the average hotel occupancy was 74%, according to Explore Asheville’s data.

While hotels might not be fully back to pre-pandemic levels, vacation rentals have increased since 2019.

In 2021, average occupancy for vacation rentals was 65.7% and was even higher in 2020, 71.7%. In pre-pandemic 2019, the average vacation rental occupancy rate was 58.8%.

Isley said the return of visitors to the city was a good sign for Asheville’s shops, restaurants and tourist attractions.

“More opportunities for our restaurants, our outdoor outfitters, our retail partners. We really heard over the holiday season that our retail partners had a great season, that even eclipsed 2019,” Isley added.

The Asheville Regional Airport said they had a record summer, calling it the “highest number of passengers ever served in one summer” in a statement.

The airport also had a record October last year, and holiday travel was on par with pre-pandemic 2019, according to the same statement. 

The airport said final numbers would be released later this month. Isley said Explore Asheville would also release final tourism numbers later in January.

As they reflect in the new year, Asheville’s business owners said they saw the same increases in travelers and new residents reflected in some of the travel metrics detailed above.

“2020, I think it was right at the beginning of summer time, we had to shut down for 3 months. At that time I hadn’t missed any work in nine years, I tell you it was a life adjustment,” said Barber Shop Owner Isaac West.

West, who owns Biltmore Plaza Barber Shop, started cutting hair in people’s homes and driveways instead. 

“[Met] these people in their own environment where they’re comfortable. Was really, really lovely,” West said, recalling his time cutting hair privately.

Now, West said his business has rebounded and is seeing numbers he’s never seen before.

“It’s been the best year, for the record, in 12 years of barbering, 2021,” West said.

Much like the hair he gets paid to cut all day, his business grew back. West has lived in Asheville his entire life and said there’s been a noticeable bump in visitors.

“Oh definitely, probably 60% more than in the past years,” West said. He added the growth is a combination of both more tourism and more residents, as people flocked from cities to quieter spots like Asheville.

“Traffic increases, it’s always good for us, because we’re in a good visual location, people drive by us all day long,” West said about the business’ location just blocks away from the entrance to the Biltmore Estate.

West said he noticed an increase over the past year as COVID-19 preventative measures, like vaccines, became more widespread.

“The vaccines come out, and people started taking them and started taking precautions a lot more. I think that enabled people to get out of their homes, and felt more comfortable being out in the public again,” West said.

In his downtown restaurant, Owner of Twisted Crepes Selvin Castro said he felt like 2021 was a busier year than usual.

“It’s so many people. Yeah. … You know, it’s mostly busy every single day, very much,” Castro said about the season.

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