Norfolk’s strong military ties make it a magnet for veterans and military families, but there is more to the city than its massive naval base.
In a recent article, Travel + Leisure identifies Norfolk as one of the 50 best destinations worldwide, ranking among cities like Honolulu, Jerusalem, and Nashville.
“Norfolk has become an off-the-radar, affordable hot spot,” Travel + Leisure contributor Christine Wei wrote.
According to local players in the tourism industry, travelers are taking note.
The U.S. Travel Association’s most recent data shows the city’s revenue from visitors reached more than $764 million in 2015, a 2.7 percent increase from the previous year.
Hotel data collector Smith Travel reports hotel occupancy in Norfolk has grown by 3.1 percent since 2015, and in the last 18 months, the number of airline passengers to the Norfolk International Airport has increased by six percent, according to airport director of market development Charlie Braden.
Across the city, the Chrysler Museum of Art reports a 42 percent increase in museum guests since 2000, according to the museum’s director of visitor services Colleen Higginbotham.
Visitation is also at a record high for the Norfolk Botanical Garden. The garden’s marketing and communications director Kelly Welsh reports annual visits have increased from 160,000 in 2000 to more than 400,000 people in 2016.
So, what’s attracting visitors to Norfolk?
“Having mild temperatures year round has allowed us to expand from a summer destination to a year-round destination,” VisitNorfolk vice president of sales and marketing Donna Allen said. “Now, visitors are coming for our water, recreational activities, arts, and culinary experiences.”
According to Allen, the city has expanded its online presence through its VisitNorfolk tourism website, where visitors can research things to see and do around the city.
“Currently, we have just under half a million visitors to our website annually,” she said. “Five to ten years ago we had less than 75,000.”
While Virginia Beach is the big name in the area, Norfolk is working to improve and promote activities that are off the beaten path.
“Outdoor recreation is always extremely popular,” Allen said. “We are doing more to spread the word about the Elizabeth River Trail, Nauticus’ Sailing School, charter boat fishing, the beaches at Ocean View and more.”
A number of annual events and culinary options have also helped the city make a name for itself, Allen said.
“The Grand Illumination parade and holiday festivities that take place annually are a huge draw for visitors,” she said. “And Norfolk’s food scene has grown tremendously in the past few years [with the addition of] many young, inspired chefs and restaurateurs.”
Moving into 2017, the city hopes recent creative ventures, like the NEON arts district, upcoming business openings, including the Waterside District, and new accommodations, like the Main Hilton Hotel, will attract new visitors.
“The waterfront district is a spot that hasn’t been activated for a long time, so it’s really going to set us apart from other areas,” Jessica Kliner, marketing director for the Downtown Norfolk Council, said. “There will be a lot of different dining and music options. It will really be a blending of genres.”
According to the Downtown Norfolk Council, which works to improve and promote experiences within the city, Norfolk is becoming a more fast-paced, visitor-friendly destination.
“Norfolk is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. It’s morphing to accommodate the needs of a 24-hour city,” Kliner said. “You can have whatever type of experience you want here — whether that’s a quiet dinner, or a big night out. There’s something for everyone.”
The city may be experiencing marked growth, but Norfolk’s vibrant, eclectic culture remains, Allen said, noting the rich murals and quirky art installations found throughout the city, and in areas like the NEON arts district.
“The feedback from our visitors is that Norfolk has a fun, urban vibe with a surprising edginess to it, but still somehow maintains a friendly and open feel,” she said. “This is a wonderful city with so much to offer its visitors. From a tourism perspective, there are big changes happening in Norfolk this year.”
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