MYRTLE BEACH — Grand Strand leaders rolled out the red carpet – Myrtle Beach style, of course – for the arrival of WestJet Airlines’ first flight to Myrtle Beach from Canada on Thursday.
A Johnny Cash impersonator serenaded the arriving passengers from Toronto, Canada, as characters from Medieval Times handed out flowers and goodie bags stuffed with a cap, water bottle and other promotional items as the golfers, vacationers and others walked through gate.
“Everywhere we go this happens to us,” joked Richard Zdye from Canada, who had just stepped off the plane with a group of buddies for a golf trip. His group came to Myrtle Beach because “it’s convenient” with the new flights, he said.
The flights will run twice a week between Myrtle Beach International Airport and Toronto Pearson International Airport until late October.
The additional flights should help the local golf and tourism industries, leaders have 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.
“We have always had a great relationship with our neighbors up North,” Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes said, one of several leaders to applaud the new WestJet service after the first plane’s arrival. “I want to thank WestJet for believing in our city and taking a chance on our city.”
WestJet, based in Canada, started serving Myrtle Beach – its 21st U.S. destination – because of its popularity among Canadian golfers and vacationers, company officials said. The first flight was booked.
“We are off to a great start,” said Tim Croyle, WestJet’s vice president and general manager. “This is a great destination. There’s so much to do here.”
Flying here from Canada has gotten easier through the years. Porter Airlines flies to Toronto City Centre in Canada during the fall, winter and spring, and several other airlines fly to Niagara Falls, N.Y., which is close to the Canadian border.
The WestJet 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.
Horry County is ensuring that WestJet is successful here by putting $1 million in escrow to guarantee that WestJet receives the minimum 15 percent operating margin for flight service during the seasonal period. Once the season ends, the airline will calculate its profit margin consistent with a reporting process WestJet has historically used in determining route profitability.
If the profit margin meets or exceeds 15 percent, Horry County won’t owe WestJet any money. If it’s less than 15 percent, the county will pay the difference in an amount not exceeding the $1 million. Officials have said that they don’t expect to have to tap that fund.
Without the WestJet flight, Canadian Marion McEntee said she wouldn’t have ended up in Myrtle Beach. She browsed a list of cities WestJet serves looking for a beach destination.
“This is a place we haven’t been before,” she said as she thumbed through the maps and brochures included in the goodie bag. “I wanted the ocean.”
Whether she returns “just depends on how good the beach is.”
But while tourism promoters lauded WestJet’s arrival in Myrtle Beach because of its potential to bring Canadians here, officials also plugged the chance for locals to take flights to Canada.
WestJet, which serves 85 destinations in North America, Central America and the Caribbean, is increasing its number of flights in Canada, including trips between Toronto and Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and Regina.
“I want to remind you that the plane does go both ways,” Croyle said.
Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.