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Spirit Airlines' addition aims to serve golfers

Travelers between Myrtle Beach and Chicago have an easier way to get back and forth starting today with the launch of a daily, nonstop flight on Spirit Airlines.

Grand Strand tourism leaders herald the new flight to Chicago O'Hare International Airport as an opportunity to lure more visitors to the beach, especially golfers from the Chicago area.

"It has huge potential," said Bill Golden, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, a marketing group that also works to get flights to the beach. "Chicago is the No. 2 golf market east of the Mississippi behind New York. It is a tremendous opportunity for us."

Nonstop daily service to the Windy City has been off and on since 2001. United Airlines used to fly the route, but ditched it in 2006, though it kept nonstop weekend service intermittently through September. Spirit Airlines ran nonstop service between Myrtle Beach and Chicago in 2001 and 2002 but ended the service when demand fell after Sept. 11, 2001.

Spirit officials say Myrtle Beach's affordability makes it a likely candidate to do well as travelers search for bargains.

"Spirit chose to continue to grow Myrtle Beach because we believe it's a great destination and it should do well in a value-conscious time," Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson wrote in an e-mail.

Spirit, the airline with the most traffic at Myrtle Beach International Airport, said it is pleased with ticket sales on the Chicago flights so far, but didn't give specific numbers.

For golf promoters, the hard part has begun - spreading the word about the new flight.

Golf Holiday plans to spend about $100,000 on promotion, including radio ads, direct mail and golf show sponsorships, Golden said. E-mails also are being sent, he said.

The goal is to keep the planes full and persuade Chicago-area golfers who usually go to Florida or Arizona that the Grand Strand is a better deal and just as easy to get to now, Golden said. A road trip from Chicago to Myrtle Beach takes up to 15 hours.

With all the recent consolidation in the airline industry, landing a new flight is a plus for Myrtle Beach, Golden said.

"It's certainly challenging in this economic environment to bring in a new flight," Golden said. "This flight absolutely has to succeed. It can't fail. It's hard to get new service."

The daily flights are set to continue through Nov. 11. From today to April 30, the flight will leave Myrtle Beach at 11 a.m., arriving in Chicago at 12:20 p.m. Starting May 1, the flight will leave Myrtle Beach at 1 p.m. and arrive at 2:20 p.m.

Spirit will qualify for discounts on fees at Myrtle Beach International Airport because the service goes to a new city. Horry County, which owns and operates the airport, created the perks aiming to lure daily service to new destinations.

N.C. tourism meeting

N.C. tourism leaders will spend the next few days developing ways to keep the industry growing despite the down economy.

About 500 people, including several from Brunswick County, have registered for the N.C. Governor's Conference on Hospitality and Tourism, which kicked off today in Raleigh, N.C.

Leaders also will get their first look at this year's marketing plan, developed by the state Division of Tourism.

The conference wraps up Tuesday.

South Carolina recently had its annual tourism conference in Hilton Head Island.