Originally created 07/08/06

Travelers head to S. Carolina



Are high gas prices elsewhere good for South Carolina?

Yes, says Tom Sponseller, the president of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina.

Mr. Sponseller said tourism is up statewide as predicted, by 4.2 percent as of May.

But not in the Interstate 95 corridor.

Mr. Sponseller attributes that to travelers cutting short their Florida trips and traveling to South Carolina instead.

"We're a drive-to state. Most of our visitors come here by car," he said. "But we're one or two states closer than Florida."

And that means one or two tanks of gas.

Starting in Asheville, N.C., drive a Chevy Malibu to Myrtle Beach, and it'll cost you $52.78. Drive to Tampa, Fla., instead, and it'll cost you $114.84.

If there is a point at which the average American decides it's too expensive to travel, the country hasn't reached it.

"People lie to you when you ask them that question," said Tom Crosby, vice president of communications for AAA Carolinas.

People will pick an amount - $3 for example - and say they'll stop driving if gas reaches that point, Mr. Crosby said.

South Carolina's gas prices were the lowest in the nation Friday at $2.73 on average. The average was $2.84 in the Southeast and $2.94 nationwide, but still AAA predicts travel will be up 3 to 5 percent in the Southeast this summer.

"We say (it's too expensive to travel), but whether we act on it is another question," Mr. Crosby said. "And that's because our mobility is really essential to our lifestyle."

That's good news for South Carolina's $8 billion tourism industry and the 110,000 people it employs.

High gas prices hurt families over the long haul, less in the short run, Mr. Crosby said.

Families paying $1 more per gallon on a car that gets 20 miles to the gallon, for example, will pay about $15 more per week - not enough, he said, to keep people from vacationing.

Travelers have learned to adapt.

"Instead of eating out more often at more upscale restaurants, they may try a picnic lunch at some point," said Marion Edmonds, the communications director for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

Leon and Margaret Williams, of San Diego, were in Columbia this week as part of a two-month trek across the United States in their RV. They search for the lowest gas prices along the way.

"Some stations have 5, 6, 7, 8 cents difference" in gas prices than other stations just a block away, Mrs. Williams said.

But even with gas prices high, the couple never considered postponing the trip.

Said Mr. Williams: "We don't expect them to go down very much, so you just have to do it."

Reach Kirsten Singleton at (803) 414-6611 or kirsten.singleton@morris.com.