Originally created 05/03/04

State leaders expecting tourism to increase despite gas hikes



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Gas prices may be going up this summer, but tourism leaders throughout South Carolina expect vacationers to keep on driving.

"Nobody's happy to see gas prices go up just before the summer travel season," said Marion Edmonds, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. "But there's a lot of pent-up desire for travel out there with the economic recession and post-9/11. People may have scaled back, not taking as long of a trip in distance and time."

The Sternenberg family says it will do what it has done for years, drive several times each summer from their Irmo home to Myrtle Beach.

"It will cost us just a little more this year to get to the beach, but maybe we just won't drive around as much once we get there," said Janet Sternenberg, 46, laughing.

About 30 million people visit South Carolina each year. The tourism industry means about $14.5 billion a year to the Palmetto State.

So far, experts haven't seen that drop off with gas continuing to increase in price.

Edmonds said there's an increase of 2.3 percent in state accommodations taxes and 2.5 percent in admissions-tax collections for the first eight months of the fiscal year.

Brad Dean, head of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, has an eye on the pumps, but expects the Grand Strand's affordability to win out. Dean is anticipating a 6 percent growth in tourism for Myrtle Beach, which he said he bases partly on phone calls and Internet inquiries received.

"Gas prices might keep people closer to home, which if anything would boost and not hurt tourism," he said. "But I'm not overly concerned - Myrtle Beach has such a strong appeal for families."

AAA Carolinas spokeswoman Sarah Davis says Myrtle Beach is second to Orlando, Fla., in requests for personalized travel maps.

"When gas reaches $2 a gallon which I don't think it will in South Carolina, then we'll see people begin to significantly alter their plans," Davis said. "But people still want to get away from it all."

Tom Sponseller, who heads the Hospitality Association of South Carolina, says people seem to be waiting later to decide on vacation plans.

"You don't know if they're coming until three weeks before they do, instead of three months," he said.

Tourism in Charleston is thought to be rising slightly, said Jacki Renegar of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's Center for Business Research. "We're selling more rooms and at higher rates, which is making hoteliers happy," she said.

Renegar says attendance is stagnant at several Charleston area locations like museums and gardens.