It's not a matter of whether tourism will be bad this year, but how bad.
Don Schunk, a research economist at Coastal Carolina University, said if travelers decrease their spending by 10 percent in 2009, as surveys show they will, that could lead to a loss of $415 million in local business revenue. Another $166 million could be lost because of ripple effects. Area tourism promoters plan to keep advertising to lure visitors, but the amount they have to spend shrank this year.
The U.S. Travel Association, formerly the Travel Industry Association, expects business travel to drop 2.7 percent this year and leisure travel to fall 1.3 percent.
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Schunk predicts revenue from Horry County's accommodations and admissions taxes - taxes on entertainment and lodging rooms - will be down more than 3 percent in 2009.
"It's maybe an optimistic statement to say it's going to be a challenging year," Schunk said. "It may be even worse than that."
More people will continue to lose jobs in 2009, even after the economy looks like it's starting to recover.
Don Schunk, a research economist with Coastal Carolina University, said the unemployment rate in Horry County will stay in the double digits through 2010.
Things will start to turn in the first quarter of 2010, he said.
Jobs in the health care field, especially on the Grand Strand, are as close as it comes to recession-proof. So far, area hospitals have not instituted hiring freezes or laid people off.
With the area's growing and aging population, there's an increasing demand for health care services, Schunk said. "Even throughout 2009, I expect to see job growth in all kinds of health-related fields," he said. "Beyond that, you'd be real hard-pressed to find any major industry that's going to be growing."
Hotels, restaurants and attractions will lead the pack in job losses.
Despite the economic downturn, area hospitals are continuing with plans for expansion, while more patients without health insurance will likely come through the doors.
Nearly all hospitals along the Grand Strand are expanding or renovating.
Grand Strand Regional Medical Center expects to break ground before the end of the year on a 50-bed expansion, and construction will continue through 2011, hospital spokeswoman Joan Carroza said.
Loris Community Hospital and Seacoast Medical Center also are expanding, with construction under way. Seacoast is adding 50 beds, and Loris is adding 35,800 square feet that will include a new emergency department, intensive care unit and pharmacy. Both are expected to be completed in 2011.
Georgetown Memorial Hospital has asked the state to approve a replacement facility, though construction has not yet begun, hospital spokeswoman Ronda Wilson said.
In Brunswick County, N.C., Novant Health is building a 74-bed hospital at Brunswick Community Hospital. It is expected to be completed in early 2011.
As for consumers, the rising unemployment rate has left more folks without health insurance, a trend that is likely to continue this year.
Myrtle Beach will kick off the 2009 tourist season with at least one bit of good news for air travelers and the golf industry: a long-awaited nonstop flight to Chicago will debut in March.
Spirit Airlines will offer the flight.
Officials are mixed on whether they think there will be more or fewer passengers this year at Myrtle Beach International Airport than in 2008, which was off 7.23 percent from the previous year. It's important to note, though, that 2007 was the airport's busiest year, with more than 1.68 million seats booked in and out.
Horry County, which owns and operates the airport, expects traffic to be the same and perhaps slightly up.
Air fares should be aggressive as airlines try to take advantage of low fuel prices, said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
Schunk said he thinks airport traffic will continue to decrease. But he said it's important to take a long-term view when thinking about the airport expansion.
The county wants to build a $130 million addition, adding five gates, to handle a projected increase in traffic. Work is expected to start in 2010, with the bigger airport ready by 2012.
Gas prices aren't expected to take drivers on the wild ride that they did in 2008. They will likely climb and waver in 2009, though it's not clear how high they will go. But prices should be more stable than in 2008, when prices shot up to more than $4 a gallon during the summer. Schunk said he expects gas prices to bounce between $1.50 to $2 a gallon.
Operators of golf-related businesses on the Grand Strand are braced to weather what could be an economic storm in 2009.
Paid rounds on Strand courses were down 8.5 percent in 2008 compared with 2007, according to statistics compiled for marketing cooperative Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, and another palpable drop is expected this year.
"Golf has to survive in Myrtle Beach, and we'll do whatever we need to do to make that happen," said Signature Golf partner Steve Taylor, whose company operates five Strand courses. "... '09 is not going to be as good as '08, and I think it will be 2010 until we say we're recovering."
HARD ROCK PARK
Hard Rock Park will reopen this summer with new owners, a move that area leaders say could boost tourism and add needed jobs.
FPI MB Entertainment bought the bankrupt theme park for $25 million in late February and plans to reopen the park by Memorial Day. The company, which wants to keep the Hard Rock theme if the cafe company agrees, plans to add rides, arrange merchandising and design new attractions and shows. The owners also said the admission price would be more appealing than the $50 charged last summer, the park's first season.
Hard Rock Park's debut in 2008 came with great fanfare and promise, but quickly fizzled as the economy tanked, gas prices shot up to $4 a gallon and the park's marketing efforts fell short. It filed for bankruptcy in September.
Leaders are again pinning their hopes on the 55-acre park's potential.
"That's got to be a shot in the arm for tourism this year, which is looking a bit bleak," Horry County Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland said after the Feb. 17 sale. "Those guys got a really good deal if they can make a go of it."
The housing market will likely stay sluggish in 2009, experts say, with further declines in the number of sales and prices. "If the local housing market stabilizes in 2009, it's going to be at the very end of the year," said Schunk.
The excess of inventory on the market means that buyers still have the upper hand, and sellers are doing what they can to lure them with price cuts and incentives.
The slowdown will likely be reflected in building permit activity as well, according to Schunk's forecast for the spring quarter - March through May.
Builders are hesitant to build unless they've already secured a buyer, said Coastal Carolinas Association of Realtors market analyst Tom Maeser. Interest rates are also expected to stay relatively low, he said.
The problem many buyers are encountering, however, is that they can't lock in one of those low rates, Schunk said. "Yes, mortgage rates are very low, but you still need such a significant downpayment to get one of those mortgages," Schunk said. "People don't have enough savings set aside to make one of those downpayments."
Consumers are keeping a tight grip on their wallets, and retailers are dropping prices aiming to jump-start their spending.
Retail sales will likely dip 10.6 percent from 2008 levels in Horry County this spring and 13.8 percent in Georgetown County, according to Schunk. By the time the year ends, it should level off to a 5 percent to 7.5 percent drop across the two counties.
"Consumers are spending less, there's just no doubt about it," said Doug Woodward, a research economist at the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business.
Retailers are slashing prices and finding ways to market themselves through e-mail or on social networking sites. Many have been forced to consolidate, close or file for bankruptcy, and Woodward said to expect more of that in 2009.
Banks will continue to have a rough ride in '09, likely seeing a new wave of defaults from people who can't make payments on consumer debt, including credit cards and car loans, experts said.
"If we have a soft economy for a period of time, that catches up with every type of lending," said CCU finance professor Robert Burney, who serves on the board of Carolina Trust Federal Credit Union. "It's across the board. Everyone's finances are going to get a little more stressed."
In addition, banks will have a tough time finding credit-worthy borrowers, he said. That can be problematic, as a bank's bread and butter is usually the difference between what it collects on loans and what it doles out on deposits. "The environment isn't such that there's a lot of good loans to make," Burney said.
Most banks probably won't be adding new branches this year. "I think this time next year, our local banking scene will look pretty similar" to today's, Burney said.