Originally created 05/24/04

State looks for with accurate way to measure tourism dollars



MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- Revised figures show Grand Strand tourism had fewer tourists in recent years and suffered more following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks than previous statistics indicated.

About 12.7 million tourists came to the beach in 2002, not 14 million as the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce had previously reported. Statistics for 2003 are not yet available.

The revised figures come from D.K. Shifflet & Associates, a Virginia-based travel industry research firm hired by the chamber to double check the numbers.

"We never could justify 14 million," said chamber President Brad Dean. "We just didn't feel comfortable with that anymore. We've just got more accurate sources now."

The issue highlights a problem tourist spots in South Carolina and across the country have in trying to track tourism. With a hodgepodge of number-crunching methods among destinations, the results can create confusion when trying to compare counties and regions.

It also creates doubt in how accurately tourism leaders are tracking the South Carolina's top industry, which officials say generates $14.5 billion annually.

"It's a moving target," said Julie Flowers, senior research manager at the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. "There really is not a foolproof way to do it."

The agency wants to develop a standard system so it can present solid, matching data for its regions. The legislature and other governing bodies are increasingly demanding accountability, Flowers said.

The agency plans to form a task force within six months to create a standard formula for the state and its counties to use. The goal is to have a uniform system in place in two years, Flowers said.

"It's becoming more important that we (as a state) are consistent internally," she said.

The changes to Myrtle Beach's visitor numbers doesn't affect tourism's estimated economic impact on the area, which remains at about $5 billion a year.

The chamber's previous formula based the numbers on occupancy rates, accommodations tax collections, retail sales and national inflation rates. It only worked well when the numbers went up, Dean said. Shifflet's method is more scientific and precise, he said.

Shifflet revised the Grand Strand visitor statistics from 1996 to 2002. Among the changes:

- Declines in the number of visitors during 1997 and 2001. Original reports showed modest growth of about 100,000 people in 1997, and officials had said 2001 was a flat year.

- The 2001 terrorist attacks and lagging economy had a more drastic effect on the Grand Strand than originally thought. About 1.9 million fewer people visited that year.

- The Grand Strand had greater growth in 1999 and 2000. Visitor numbers those years ticked up slightly, by about 100,000 people.