HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Gov. Jim Hodges pledged Wednesday to work to make South Carolina the nation's top tourist destination and, for starters, promised to seek $10 million more to promote the $14 billion industry.
"It will put us back in the game," said Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Buddy Jennings who said Monday that a budget shortfall forced the agency to cut $2 million from its marketing efforts.
"We have the potential to build South Carolina into the No. 1 tourism destination in the United States," Hodges told the Governors Conference on Travel and Tourism. "That indeed will be the goal of our administration."
Hodges also wants Parks, Recreation and Tourism financed out of the state's general fund. Currently, operations are paid for with a combination of state admissions tax revenues and park revenues.
"My hope is the Legislature will recognize the importance of PRT to economic development in South Carolina," Hodges said later. "If we don't nurture the agency that promotes the development of our tourism economy, then I think we have made a serious mistake."
Jennings said the number of visitors to the state had flattened in recent years. Admission tax revenues had not kept up with state-ordered mandates for his agency and some of the revenue went to the Commerce Department and local governments for infrastructure needs.
Parks, Recreation and Tourism had to borrow money and cut its promotion efforts.
"The $10 million will allow us to pay off our loan ... and get back to promoting South Carolina at the level we need to be promoting," Jennings said. The new money would increase the department's budget to $52 million.
Jennings said he liked the idea of putting the agency under the general fund. "I'm the only state agency head who goes to sleep at night wondering if he'll make payroll or not," he said.
He wasn't sure exactly where South Carolina stacked up against other states in tourism, but said Florida and California are ahead.
"We're the No. 2 golf destination in the country behind Florida and we're fast taking over No. 1 in that regard," he said.
Jennings said becoming the nation's top destination was not unreasonable.
"We've got beaches and we've got golf and we have been blessed with a lot of natural scenic beauty," he said. "One of the fastest growing segments (of the industry) is eco-tourism, and man, do we have a lot to offer out there."