MYRTLE BEACH Tourism throughout South Carolina and along the Grand Strand improved last year compared to 2011 despite a still wobbly economy, and officials expect that momentum to continue this year.
Low gas prices, new air service such as Southwest in Charleston and Greenville and the PGA Tour Championship on Kiawah Island helped South Carolina tourism perform better in 2012 than 2011, said Duane Parrish, director of the S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism department, the state’s main tourism promoter.
“Those things have combined to help us out quite a bit,” Parrish said. “Pretty strong given the shaky national economy.”
Statewide, revenue per available room -- a key gauge of the industry known as Rev PAR -- jumped 6.8 percent, in line with the national average and better than the South Atlantic region, Parrish said. Admissions tax revenue, collected at golf courses, attractions and other places that charge admission, increased 2.6 percent statewide last year, he said.
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The health of the state’s $15 billion tourism industry will be a topic Parrish will discuss next week during the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Travel at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. More than 400 tourism leaders from across the state will attend the three-day conference, which kicks off Monday. Gov. Nikki Haley is expected to attend a luncheon Wednesday where awards will be handed out to top attractions and others.
Tourism has been a bright spot amid the ongoing economic sluggishness, and statistics show 2012 continued the trend.
Along the Grand Strand, lodging occupancy increased slightly, and tourists paid more for a place to stay. Average occupancy at hotels, condo-tels and campsites ticked up 0.9 points to 52 percent, and the average daily rate for that segment increased by $3.12, according to Taylor Damonte at Coastal Carolina University, which tracks the local tourism industry. Average occupancy at vacation rental properties ticked up 0.7 points, and the average daily rate increased for those properties by $5.51.
“We are seeing some pretty healthy numbers,” Damonte said.
But it will take some time before demand catches up with the oversupply of rooms, which would usher in more significant growth, he said.
“We are still in an overbuilt market and will continue to be for the next two to four years,” Damonte said.
Tourism promoters expect the industry to grow by about the same percentages this year, though some economists and others are concerned about the potential affect from the increase in payroll tax withholdings that leaves every worker taking home fewer dollars.
Damonte said the Grand Strand typically does well when travelers are watching their dollars because it’s a drive destination and affordable when they get here.
“When the economy is tough, we tend to do better,” Damonte said. “You can still get in your minivan in Maryland or New Jersey and get here in a day with the family.”
The ongoing lagging economy doesn’t worry Parrish, who said the state’s tourism industry has done well even amid the down times.
“You could have said that for the last two years, so I think we can do it again,” Parrish said.
Low gas prices last year helped South Carolina, where 80 percent of the visitors drive to get here, Parrish said. Nationally, gas prices hit another record high in 2012 -- $3.60 a gallon, up from the previous high of $3.51 in 2011, according to AAA -- but they tapered off after the start of 2012 and didn’t get as high as some had feared.
This year, gas prices are expected to drop for the first time in four years. The average price of a gallon of gas is expected to fall 5 percent to $3.44, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
Golf will get an extra advertising push this year, which could give a needed boost to the Grand Strand. The state’s tourism agency will pump more into promoting golf, aiming to feed off the spotlight that was on South Carolina last year when it hosted the PGA Tour Championship in Kiawah Island. About 23 percent of PRT’s overall marketing budget, up from 20 percent, will be spent on golf this year, Parrish said.
“The awareness of golf in the state is at an all-time high,” he said.
The number of paid rounds played on the Grand Strand was down about 0.73 percent in 2012, according to marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday. Loss of air service to key markets on Myrtle Beach-based Direct Air, which abruptly stopped flying and filed for bankruptcy in March, combined with fewer discretionary dollars for golfers to spend has kept the rounds from growing, officials have said.
PRT, which has its first new advertising agency in 30 years, also plans to focus on promoting rural and niche markets. That shouldn’t take away from the Grand Strand, which still gets promotional dollars through PRT’s 2-for-1 program, Parrish said. Myrtle Beach got $6 million through that program last year, he said.
“The coast will always be the biggest mover of dollars,” Parrish said.
For the Grand Strand, Damonte expects about the same as last year: Lodging occupancy up slightly, combined with higher rates.
“We are still improving,” he said. “We are going in the right direction.”