South Carolina tourism still not back to levels before Great Recession

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — It was a solid summer for tourism in South Carolina, though industry leaders say it could still be some time before the $15 billion industry recovers to the levels seen before the Great Recession.

“We’re not at all back to where we were in 2006 and 2007,” said Frank Frederick, the managing director of the Wild Dunes resort on the Isle of Palms. “My feeling is it will still probably take a couple more years.”

That said, tourism statewide this year is up from 2011 levels with a key indicator, revenue per available room, up almost 9 percent through June. After heavy discounting during the recession, hotel rates are edging upward again as occupancy improves.

“Back in 2007 was the strongest year we had,” said Duane Parrish, the head of the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. “We’re not quite back to that level yet, but we’re the closest we have been since then.”

Officials have predicted that tourism will be up about 5 percent this year. The $15 billion figure represents 2010 tourism activity.

Parrish said it may take some time for the industry to reach levels seen five years ago.

“There is just an overall uneasiness about the economy, and this is one of the slowest recoveries ever,” he said. “The memory of 2009 is not that far behind us, and in terms of traveling, there is just a bit of uneasiness.”

Frederick, who is also the chairman of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau board of governors, said South Carolina seems to be recovering more quickly than other areas of the country.

“Charleston has received so many accolades in the past couple of years our market is improving over other cities,” he said.

This month’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island is expected to spur tourism statewide.

“The coverage was seen pretty much around the world. A generation has passed since Charleston had this type of coverage” with the Ryder Cup, said Marion Edmonds, a spokesman for the tourism department.

The PGA was broadcast in India and China, where there are emerging middle classes with the resources to travel, he said.

“The kind of exposure that the state of South Carolina and Kiawah received is good news for all of South Carolina,” said Charlie Clark, a spokeswoman for the Hilton Head Island Chamber of Commerce who said the island had a solid summer season.

The direct impact of the PGA has been estimated at $92 million. Initial reports show hotel occupancy in Charleston County was up sharply the week of the tournament compared to last year.

Wild Dunes, on the other side of Charleston 42 miles and more than an hour’s drive from Kiawah, saw golf rounds up by half and golf revenue double for the week, Frederick said. The golfers were staying elsewhere but coming to play. Wild Dunes, he said, is typically booked the week of the tournament.

Taylor Damonte, a tourism researcher at Coastal Carolina University, said in Myrtle Beach, even during the downturn, hotels and other accommodations opened that had been planned before the recession.

“The total impact may be up,” he said. “The destination is generating more total tourism revenue, and we have more flip-flops on the beach than we had. The challenge is we have more hotel rooms to fill.”


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