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Oil spill throws Myrtle Beach area tourism into turmoil

Grand Strand business leaders and experts see two possible - and very different - effects that the monthlong Gulf oil spill could have on local tourism.

If the spill stays in the Gulf, or near southern Florida, more tourists could choose to come to the Strand instead of those areas. But should the oil enter into the loop stream and spread up the East Coast, tourist fears may keep them away from the Southeast - including the Grand Strand.

A North Carolina official told McClatchy Newspapers on Thursday that there is less than a 1 percent chance of the spill reaching the Carolinas, but that might not stop negative publicity from affecting destinations such as the Grand Strand, said Brad Dean, president and chief executive of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

Inquiries about the spill follow the same pattern as the news cycle, Dean said. The number of callers considering a vacation switch from the Gulf Coast to Myrtle Beach has dropped since the initial news of the spill, he said. But news of oil reaching the Florida coast last week caused a spike in calls, he said, including a few concerned it would reach the Carolina coast.

"The calls tend to follow the national media coverage," Dean said. "It's something we're watching and tend to be very proactive should the negative media coverage spread our way."

The perception that the oil could spread to South Carolina beaches could hurt the area even if it doesn't make it here, he said.

Reservations at Grand Strand Resorts at Barefoot Resort went up immediately after the spill, but the resort has not gotten many calls since then, said President Phil Pate. But Pate said it's still possible the spill will drive business to the hotel.

"If it gets in that loop current and it starts getting around Florida, I think our phones will pick up again," he said.

The Dayton House Resort has gotten two reservations from vacationers who thought twice about the Gulf Coast - one from Louisiana and another from Alabama, general manager Paul Garcia said.

"The folks from Louisiana were going to go to Destin, [Fla.], and they changed their mind and didn't want to take any chances," he said.

The Grand Strand may have the best luck drawing vacationers from Atlanta, where the driving distance to the Gulf Coast is similar to the distance to Myrtle Beach, Garcia said.

As for the spill's negative effects on Strand tourism, Garcia said he is confident the spill will be contained but is still keeping his fingers crossed.

"I hope, I pray, it's controlled before it would make it all the way to the South Carolina coast," he said

Vacation rentals may be getting a boost from the spill, said Ryan Swaim, general manager of Dunes Realty. Although the company got few calls just after the spill, that number has grown to 10 to 15 a day, he said. Swaim said he had no way to track whether the calls resulted in bookings, although reservations have been strong during the past two weeks.

Swaim and Garcia compared fear of the spill to fear of a major storm coming ashore.

"It's like when the Weather Channel highlights Myrtle Beach when there's a storm off the coast of Africa," Swaim said. "It seems pretty far fetched it will make its way here."

Tourists who stay away because of storm forecasts will similarly stay away if the oil spill is forecasted to spread, even if it seems unlikely, Garcia said.

Evidence shows this "hurricane effect" affects travel and the same theory applies to the oil spill, said Taylor Damonte, a resort tourism management professor at Coastal Carolina University.

"Anytime there is a forecast by the national news media for a disaster of any kind ... making landfall in the mid-Atlantic region, we've seen an impact on our occupancy rate, a negative impact," Damonte said.

The Strand is unlikely to benefit from the spill, he said. Damonte, who grew up in New Orleans and vacationed on the Gulf Coast, said Myrtle Beach isn't what people in that region are looking for in a vacation. Tourists won't see Myrtle Beach as interchangeable with the Gulf Coast because of the distance, he said, and would prefer a location such as eastern Florida.

"I very seriously doubt we'll have travelers from New Orleans or central Mississippi or southern Georgia or eastern Texas trading off to go to Myrtle Beach rather than the (Florida) Panhandle," he said. "Geographically, it's too far away and the wrong direction. They will go east and south before going north."