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S.C. beach tourism might get boost from gulf oil spill

The Grand Strand could benefit from the Gulf Coast's misfortune as tourists planning to vacation there shift their travel plans fearing the impact of the oil spill.

The Myrtle Beach Area and North Myrtle Beach chambers of commerce said there has been an increase in calls from those concerned about the spill and possibly looking for a different beach to visit.

"It started Saturday, and people are calling because they're concerned they won't be able to go to the Gulf shore," said Ruthanne Ellis, director of the North Myrtle Beach Visitors Center. "They're afraid, and they want to go ahead and set up their plans so they will have a place for vacation with their families for the summer."

Ellis, who is one of two people who answers phones at the center, said calls have been coming nonstop. Many callers say they have reservations along the Gulf Coast, Ellis said, and are inquiring about North Myrtle Beach in case they decide to change vacation plans.

ResortQuest, a Florida-based vacation rental company with operations in South Carolina, booked $40,000 worth of reservations at its properties on the Grand Strand last weekend, much of it from vacationers adjusting their travel plans away from the Gulf Coast, said Craig McGee, director of operations for the Myrtle Beach office.

The company has about $18million in reservations along the Gulf Coast, said Cheryl Spezia, a marketing executive with ResortQuest. Some of that money could come to the Grand Strand, she said, should the Gulf beaches be affected by the spill. Customers will have a chance to transfer their bookings to ResortQuest's other properties, including those in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Hilton Head Island and elsewhere in the U.S., as is normal ResortQuest policy, she said.

The company's 118 units would normally reach 70 percent occupancy in peak season but could get close to filling up because of the added reservations, McGee said.

Fear among tourists may be expanding quicker than the oil spill off the Gulf Coast, already costing the region millions of dollars as its peak summer tourism season approaches. And with some scientists imagining oil eventually hitting South Beach, Fla., anxiety is following that hypothetical track up Florida's East Coast. Tourism is a $60 billion business in Florida.

Grand Strand companies such as Dunes Vacation Rentals might get some business from Gulf Coast vacation rental companies looking for a place to offload their reservations, general manager Ryan Swaim said.

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