MYRTLE BEACH — Myrtle Beach will have nonstop flights to Canada this summer on a carrier new to the area, additional service that officials say could lure more Canadian golfers and tourists to the Grand Strand.
WestJet, a Canadian-based airline that serves 85 destinations in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, will start flying nonstop routes twice a week to Myrtle Beach from Toronto Pearson International Airport on May 2, officials announced Monday.
The flights, on Thursdays and Sundays, will leave Toronto at 9:30 a.m. and arrive at Myrtle Beach International Airport at 11:35 a.m., then leave Myrtle Beach at 12:20 p.m. and arrive in Toronto at 2:14 p.m.
The additional flights will help the local golf and tourism industries, leaders said, by trimming what usually is a 16-hour-plus drive into a roughly two-hour flight. Canada is the top international market for Grand Strand tourism, and the area has long celebrated that relationship with the annual Canadian-American Days festival in March.
Offering nonstop flights could lure Canadian golfers who might not have considered the Grand Strand because they didn’t want to drive that far, said Bill Golden, president of marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, adding that Canadians take more than 1 million golf trips annually. It also will help the Grand Strand compete with other golf destinations that already have nonstop service to Canada, including golf meccas in Florida, he said.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for golf,” he said.
The seasonal service, WestJet’s first foray into South Carolina, will last until Oct. 24, according to the airline’s website.
These will be Myrtle Beach’s first nonstop flights to Canada during the summer, though Porter Airlines flies to Toronto Centre City during the fall, winter and spring.
“Myrtle Beach is one of the most popular destinations for Canadian vacationers, with more than 90 kilometers of picturesque beaches, world-class golf and warm southern hospitality,” Chris Avery, WestJet’s vice president of network planning, alliances and corporate development, said in a news release. “The baggage capacity of our 737 aircraft is ideal for those traveling with golf clubs and our one free checked bag is popular with leisure travelers.”
The popularity of Porter’s flights to Canada, as well as those to nearby Niagara Falls, N.Y., on Spirit Airlines and on Direct Air until it shut down last year, shows there’s demand for the Canadian market, Golden said.
“We always knew there was much more potential there,” he said.
WestJet was founded in 1996 as a regional carrier in Canada with three planes flying to five cities. It has grown to have a fleet of about 100 Boeing aircraft serving 85 destinations, including two U.S. destinations it announced Monday: Myrtle Beach and Dallas-Fort Worth. Tickets to those two destinations went on sale Monday, with special introductory fares of about $166 in US dollars one-way to Myrtle Beach.
“It’s fantastic news,” said Kirk Lovell, spokesman for Myrtle Beach International Airport. “They could put their planes anywhere in the United States or Canada.”
WestJet is the only new carrier in Myrtle Beach this year, though some existing airlines such as Spirit Airlines and US Airways have added routes and plan to start others earlier than usual this year aiming to help fill the void left by Myrtle Beach-based Direct Air, which abruptly stopped flying and filed for bankruptcy in March.
Airport officials say the added service and additional seat capacity should help make up for losses last year that led to a double-digit percentage drop in the number of outgoing passengers compared to 2011. Amid the ongoing drops last year, airport, golf and tourism leaders stepped up efforts to lure new service and keep existing flights.
“Non-stop flight service is vital to the future growth of the market, and we look forward to helping WestJet succeed in Myrtle Beach,” Golden said in the news release.
Crews are putting the finishing touches on a $118 million expansion at the Myrtle Beach airport that is expected to be complete March 19, though an opening date hasn’t yet been set. The project is wrapping up about a month later than planned after delays in the arrival of materials because of Hurricane Sandy.
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