Myrtle Beach experiences double-digit growth in international visitors

The Myrtle Beach area has seen double-digit growth in international visitors since partnering with a national initiative to promote the U.S. as a major tourist destination, the head of the area’s chamber of commerce told a Senate panel Thursday.

“Today, through partnerships with Brand USA, I am able to collaboratively promote our brand, along with my peers in Charleston and Hilton Head, in numerous countries both in Europe and the Far East,” Myrtle Beach Area Chamber President Brad Dean said.

The civic leader thanked lawmakers for establishing Brand USA and urged the Congress to continue the program.

Brand USA was created with bipartisan support in 2010 to spearhead the nation’s first global marketing effort promoting America as a premier travel destination. The initiative has resulted in 1.1 million additional visitors to the U.S. who have spent $3.4 billion while here, according to a February 2014 study by Oxford Economics.

American taxpayers don’t pay for the tourism initiative. Instead, half of its budget comes from the private sector through cash and in-kind donations from travel businesses such as hotels and airlines.

The rest of the money comes from fees assessed on international visitors traveling from countries where the U.S. doesn’t require a travel visa. By law, Brand USA can only collect up to $100 million from these fees paid by the guests. Any funds collected above that amount go to the U.S. Treasury.

Brand USA President and CEO Christopher Thompson explained how potential visitors become aware of a program that’s now in 10 markets representing 70 percent of inbound travel from around the world.

“We actually have a brand campaign that’s called ‘Land of Dreams,’ and it invites people to discover this land like never before,” Thompson said. “They would either see it on television, or billboards or out-of-home as far as maybe in subway stations and things like that. It’s also very active in digital platforms and through social media.”

Dean told the committee that tourism has led the Myrtle Beach community’s economic recovery.

“We have experienced three straight years of economic growth, propelling our tourism industry to near-record levels, and the outlook for 2014 is very encouraging,” he said.

While celebrating such progress, Dean pushed the committee -- which includes South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott. -- to address issues that threaten the region’s tourism industry.

“Small businesses today face a growing level of regulatory burdens which can stifle growth, even with the best of intentions,” Dean said. “And, sadly, our transportation infrastructure is failing.”

Dean asked the Congress to invest in needed repairs to the region’s highways and bridges, and to authorize funding to connect Myrtle Beach to the U.S. interstate highway system.

“This will create 29,000 jobs, boost tourism, attract new industries and save lives in the event of a hurricane,” Dean said.

Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt and Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced a bipartisan bill in April to reauthorize Brand USA through 2020, and Dean and other representatives from the travel industry strongly urged Congress to pass the bill.

Lawmakers and industry experts at Thursday’s hearing said Brand USA will play a key role in achieving a national goal to attract 100 million international visitors annually by the end of 2021.

The U.S. welcomed a record-breaking 70 million international visitors in 2013, up 4.7 percent from 2012, according to the U.S. Travel Association.