ROWLAND — Sheryl Kneuss was traveling Friday from Florida to Camp Lejeune to visit with her grandson and two great-grandchildren when she was surprised to find all of the activities going on at the Interstate 95 North Carolina Welcome Center.
The Indiana resident, her sister and sister-in-law arrived at the Welcome Center located just outside Rowland and only a few miles from the North Carolina-South Carolina state line during the height of the National Tourism Week celebration, a regional event held the second Friday of May. The event, billed as an appreciation to those who choose North Carolina as a travel destination, brought together representatives from tourist bureaus along the I-95 corridor, municipal and regional tourism representatives, and various tourist-related business to provide those stopping at the center a wealth of information about what the region has to offer travelers.
“This is really great,” said Kneuss as she looked through information about Lumberton given to her by Angela Sumner, the executive director of the Lumberton Tourism Bureau. “I try to get down this way as much as possible. This information will be helpful he next time I’m passing through.”
James and Louise Dingle, of Bonneau, S.C., also walked unexpectedly into the celebration. They were traveling to Washington, D.C., to attend their granddaughter’s graduation from Howard University.
“This is really a great idea,” James said.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday the grounds of the center took on a fair-like atmosphere, with the various tourism groups vying for the attention of those stopping at the center to rest or seek information as they traveled north on the interstate. In addition to receiving information promoting the region, visitors were given a variety of tokens and samples of food such as barbecue and hushpuppies.
Entertainment included traditional American Indian dancing, performed by members of the Lumbee Tribe, and line dancing, provided by the Robeson Rockers, a group consisting of residents from Lumberton and Pembroke.
Kat Littleturtle, who oversees the center for the state, said that the National Tourism Week celebration succeeds in making I-95 travelers aware of what is available to them throughout the region.
“This really just affects those travelers who are here today, but some of them schedule their return visits to the area by what they learn here today,” she said. “We have folks here from Wilmington to Halifax to Rocky Mount, and they are all here to shake hands and welcome our visitors.”
According to Littleturtle, the center stays busy the year-round. Just last month, she said, an estimated 143,000 people used the facility.
Wally Wazan, visitor services program manager for the North Carolina Department of Commerce, oversees operations of all of the state’s nine welcome centers.
“This event pretty much raises people’s awareness of what the state has to offer,” he told The Robesonian. “This center is the second busiest of all our centers for visitation.”
Wazan said that the tourism industry has a tremendous impact on North Carolina’s overall economy.
“Tourism is a $22.9 billion business to the state,” he said. Tourism is one of Robeson’s leading industries, generating about $130 million a year.
Jason Olsen, the owner of Woody’s Barbecue in Lumberton, had a booth at the celebration for the first time. He offered visitors samples of his barbecue.
“I’m really glad to be here,” he said. “I’ve had several customers come tell me that they came to my restaurant after it was recommended to them when they stopped here at the welcome center.”
And Charles Kemp, a Fairmont commissioner and its former mayor, used the celebration to give directors to the South Carolina beaches.
“I tell them that the shortest route to the beach is to get off at Exit 10 and then its only 65 miles to Cherry Grove,” he said. “… It’s two lanes, no interruptions and no speed traps. If you get off at Exit 10 there are no issues to deal with.”
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.