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Hurricane Earl prompts calls, but not cancellations in Myrtle Beach area

Hurricane Earl isn't chasing off most tourists with plans to spend the Labor Day weekend along the Grand Strand, and experts predict travel throughout the Carolinas will be up this holiday despite the storm.

Calls from tourists asking questions about the storm's path and getting details on hotel cancellation policies poured into many properties Wednesday, though few canceled their reservations, managers said. Earl is more of a threat to last-minute planners who haven't locked down their weekend getaway, officials said.

The storm, which has caused evacuations along North Carolina's Outer Banks and kicked up the waves in the Myrtle Beach area, is expected to brush the N.C. coast late today or early Friday. It will create rip currents off the Myrtle Beach coast and dump rain late today along the Grand Strand, followed by sun and no chance of rain through the remainder of the weekend.

Despite the evacuations and a state ofemergency in North Carolina on Wednesday, AAA Carolinas predicted Wednesday that travel in the Carolinas will be up this Labor Day compared with the same holiday last year, fueled by low gas prices.

Prices averaged $2.43 a gallon Wednesday in South Carolina - 13 cents less than the price was about three weeks ago. Myrtle Beach is among the top destinations for Carolinians traveling for the weekend, according to AAA Vacations, which tracks hotel bookings and routes.

Travel in South Carolina will increase 7.7 percent, AAA predicted.

Tourism promoters from Myrtle Beach to Brunswick County, N.C., expect a solid tourism weekend.

"I don't think it is going to take a substantial hit," said Cathy Altman, president of the Brunswick County, N.C., Chamber of Commerce. "We should be all right."

Others are worried about last-minute travelers - who often decide whether to take a trip based on the weather - deciding to stay home.

"They are not going to take a chance," said Jennifer Prince, spokeswoman for the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce.

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce is prepared to expand call center hours if needed and will use Facebook and Twitter to keep potential visitors informed, chamber President and CEO Brad Dean said, adding that the Grand Strand won't lose many reservations because of Earl.

"We expect Earl to be a non-event but are prepared to counter the media hype that could impact visitors making last-minute decisions to come here this weekend," he said.

Some lodging properties leaped into action Wednesday, seeking to calm tourists' fears so the season-ending weekend comes in as strong as pre-Earl predictions.

Ocean Lakes Family Campground posted a red banner on its website letting visitors know Earl wasn't expected to hit here and used Twitter to spread the word that Myrtle Beach shouldn't be affected by the storm. The campgrounds, which are sold out for this weekend, received a few cancellations Wednesday, but other visitors looking for a spot to stay quickly scooped those up, spokeswoman Barb Krumm said.

"There is concern, definitely, but it has calmed down a lot," she said. "We try to head it off at the beginning. So far everybody is back on track."

In Brunswick County, fewer than a dozen concerned tourists had called the chamber of commerce by mid-afternoon Wednesday, and most tourists weren't changing their plans, Altman said.

"When you talk storm, it makes people nervous," she said. "But they will see that we are not going to be directly hit or affected. It's OK to come down."

AAA Carolinas predicted an 8.1 increase in travel in North Carolina - about 70,000 more people than last year - during the holiday weekend, but that doesn't take into account the potential impacts of Earl.

AAA Carolinas hadn't had any cancellations in North Carolina as of Wednesday morning, but travelers with flexible plans may opt for a different destination, spokesman Brendan Byrnes said. He said that South Carolina shouldn't see much of an effect or decline in travel because of the hurricane.

About 32,000 more S.C. motorists will vacation more than 50 miles from home this Labor Day than they did last year, according to AAA Carolinas.

Even if Earl stays well offshore, it will kick up rough surf and dangerous rip currents along the coast through the Labor Day weekend, a prime time for beach vacations, forecasters said.

Many vacationers who booked in advance may no longer be able to cancel their reservations because of the holiday weekend, so some are probably adopting a wait-and-see attitude before cancelling the trip, Byrnes said.

AAA Carolinas had a 26 percent increase in travel bookings for the weekend and predicts that about 92 percent of travelers - about 420,000 people - will drive to their Labor Day destination.

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