Tourism continues to grow on Tybee Island, Little Tybee Island seeing litter issues

Published: Mar. 30, 2023 at 5:03 AM EDT
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TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (WTOC) - With tourist season ramping up, city leaders on Tybee Island are gearing up to accommodate tens of thousands of visitors.

A new study by Georgia Southern University confirms what leaders have thought for years, Tybee is seeing more and more people each year.

The study took place from July 2021 to September 2022, both online and in person. Researchers found that over half of the people that visit Tybee throughout the year aren’t local to the area, but play a critical role in the local economy.

Over the period of the study, Tybee Island saw around 1.8 million visitors. That’s up from 1.04 million the island saw the last time GSU did a study in 2015.

That’s a 59 percent increase in not even a decade. It’s a trend that city leaders have definitely taken notice of.

“We can’t just pretend that we’re 3,000 people anymore. We have to think larger. And we want everyone to be safe, so the reason we have to do that is, not only do we have to have resources on hand to respond to the needs of the millions of tourists that are here every year, but we also have to have those resources available for the people that live here,” said Tybee Island Assistant City Manager Michelle Owens.

It’s a situation, that in some ways, pays for itself. With the increase in visitors, there’s been an increase in overall revenue on the island.

The study found that tourists on the island generated around $215 million in revenue, compared to $165 million in 2015.

City leaders say that that money is critical to maintaining the island- which allows the infrastructure to keep up with the influx of visitors.

“All of our city facilities, our parks, our facilities that people like to rent for weddings, we want to make sure that all of those are up to standards, so a lot of that money will help to go towards that,” Owens said.

Overall, the study found that tourist spending supports jobs and the economy of Tybee, as well as Chatham County as a whole.

Still, Owens says that she wants everyone to be mindful of the people that call Tybee home.

“We love our visitors on Tybee, but we’re also a local community where people live. They have to go to work, and we’re trying to accommodate all of those types of people that love Tybee.”

Owens adds that this is the time of year where the island really starts to see a spike in tourists- which means implementing things like traffic control measures.

Some of those measures will start popping up this week.. so be mindful of that when you’re heading to the beach.

Little Tybee Island

One of the most well-known tourist destinations in the area is Tybee Island. But a lesser known relative of Tybee, is Little Tybee Island.

You’re free to visit the island, but Department of Natural Resources officials say that, not everyone is treating the island like they should.

The DNR has had control of Little Tybee and Cabbage Island since they designated it as a heritage preserve in March 1992. Now, 31 years later, they’re having issues with people building structures on the island, like makeshift bathrooms and cooking areas.

As a result, the DNR has had to carry out a cleanup of Little Tybee. The first part of that cleanup involved demolishing the unpermitted structures.

So far, the work has cost over $30,000 to carry out, and they’re not even done yet. Jason Lee, who’s overseeing the project for the DNR, says that people are welcome to camp on Little Tybee, but what they aren’t welcome to do, is disrupt the environment.

He says it’s frustrating to have to spend the time and money to clean the island up.

“To have a jewel like that in conservation is no small feat, and it took a lot of work from a lot of different parties from the Nature Conservancy to locals in the Chatham County area to make that conservation happen. And it’s disconcerting that the very folks who enjoy those natural areas don’t choose to keep them clean and protected for the rest of the public,” Lee said.

The second part of the cleanup effort, Lee estimates, is going to cost another $30,000. Bringing the grand total for the whole effort to $60,000.

They haven’t started the second part yet, he says, because they’re asking the public for help in cleaning up the island.

If you’ve built one of the structures, left litter on the island, or just want to help, Lee encourages you to do so.

You can make it to the island by kayaking or boating over, not swimming.

Lee says they’re asking people to do this immediately. They’ll set a date for the second part of the cleanup effort when they see what sort of a response they get.