Memorial Day violence prompts cancellations, threatens tourism

It looked like a typical early summer day in Myrtle Beach.

Visitors – some pushing baby strollers, others bikini-clad right off the beach – strolled Ocean Boulevard on Friday, the heart of the city’s tourism industry, as family vans, trucks, cars and motorcycles cruised by.

But behind that usual scene in this tourist town, some businesses worry that the crowds will dwindle, tourism promoters stand ready to unleash more family-friendly advertising and some visitors wonder if they will be safe here after a violent Memorial Day weekend in Myrtle Beach left three dead and seven injured, after eight shootings were reported along Ocean Boulevard.

Thousands were along the Grand Strand that weekend for Atlantic Beach Bikefest, which Gov. Nikki Haley said on Friday must end because of the violence and the threat it caused to residents’ safety, as well as to tourism.

Room cancellations for the summer trickled in last week as word of the violent weekend made headlines across the country, though officials couldn’t put a number on how many reservations were canceled. Other visitors shifted their reservations to other parts of the Grand Strand. Local leaders stayed busy chatting online and answering calls from concerned tourists who were angry, worried and wanted reassurance that they would be safe vacationing in Myrtle Beach.

“People are upset,” city spokesman Mark Kruea said, adding that he took calls from visitors who said they wouldn’t return and regular visitors who expressed concern but said they understood the violence wasn’t the norm for Myrtle Beach. “I think our visitors have a special relationship with Myrtle Beach. They take it personally when they hear and see [what happened].”

Tourism is the backbone of the Myrtle Beach economy, with 16 million visitors a year. Industry leaders know how tourism will be affected by hurricanes, down economies, but this – they just aren’t sure.

“But with this I just don’t have anything else to compare it to,” said Taylor Damonte of Coastal Carolina University’s Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism, which tracks the local industry. “I just don’t know. We just don’t have any data on this. We’ll be watching it certainly over the next few weeks and months.”

Leaders acknowledge the beach will lose some business over the incidents, but are still optimistic that the summer will be solid. Any loss of business hasn’t yet shown up in Damonte’s statistics for bookings this summer, though it’s only been a week since the shootings.

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, the Grand Strand’s main tourism promoter, stayed busy taking calls from and chatting online with visitors last week, trying to assure them that they will be safe during their vacations here and listening to them vent about the violence, chamber president Brad Dean said.

“It’s too early to tell what economic impact it will have,” he said, “but it’s no question it has raised a lot of concern.

“I don’t anticipate a wave of cancellations right now,” Dean said Thursday. “I’m still hopeful we are going to have a solid summer season.”

The chamber plans to watch for any hint of a negative impact before launching more advertisements, Dean said, adding that major markets already are seeing TV ads for Myrtle Beach as the summer campaign is underway. But they also might be seeing the headlines about the beach’s violent weekend.

“We are prepared to unleash additional advertising,” Dean said. “It’s just too early for us to make that call. We are not going to rush a decision.”

Violence didn’t keep some tourists away

Some tourists in town this weekend weren’t deterred by the reports of the shootings. They came for a vacation anyway.

“I didn’t really worry,” Marsha Shockley of Virginia said as she was leaving the beach at First Avenue North, where the shootings had occurred last weekend. “I had heard about it . can’t live in fear.”

Betty Boothe, also from Virginia, didn’t cancel her reservation for this weekend, even though some of the shootings happened in and near her hotel, Bermuda Sands at First Avenue North.

“It could happen anywhere,” she said. “I like it here. Friends asked me if I was still going and I said ‘Absolutely.’”

Their response? “Well, be careful.”

Tim Fodor of Tennessee hadn’t heard about the shootings before arriving in Myrtle Beach on Thursday with about 30 relatives and friends celebrating his niece’s high school graduation.

“It’s a little concerning,” he said after learning about the shootings, sitting along the Myrtle Beach boardwalk with his two kids, ages 3 and 1. “But it’s everywhere you go. We still got to live.”

He said the family would be a little more careful, watching how late they stay out and checking to see what events are scheduled in the area before booking a future trip.

“I don’t think it would affect us coming down here,” he said.

Long-term implications

Waves of violence in other U.S. tourist destinations haven’t significantly affected business there, and experts said it likely wouldn’t do any long-term harm to Myrtle Beach tourism, which boasts an image as a family-friendly place. Expect some cancellations in the short-term, though.

As long as there is no more violence, Myrtle Beach and its tourism should be fine, said Tony Henthorne, a professor and associate dean of research and graduate programs at the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration.

“In the long term, I don’t think it will have any lasting impact,” he said. “I would be surprised if it has any measurable impact at all.”

Las Vegas, where about 39 million tourists visited last year, barely saw a blip in tourism numbers last year after a series of violent incidents along the Strip, Henthorne said.

In early 2013, a number of violent incidents occurred in Vegas, most notably a car-to-car shooting that resulted in a fiery crash that killed three people and shut down the Strip for 12 hours. That came after a string of other incidents, including several shootings.

Resorts along the Strip were worried about tourists – especially the convention business – going elsewhere. The area beefed up police presence and businesses and tourism promoters bought more ads, Henthorne said.

“But [the incidents] had no discernible impact on tourism,” he said.

Myrtle Beach must decide whether the cost of the Memorial Day bike rally is worth it, said Rich Harrill, acting director of the University of South Carolina School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management.

“Myrtle Beach has struggled with bike week for a long time,” he said.

Dean had pushed last week for action to rein in Bikefest and applauded Haley’s declaration Friday that the event must end. But on Thursday, Atlantic Beach Mayor Jake Evans said Bikefest would continue, though the town would work with other cities to make sure the event is safe.

“We simply can’t let our community and tourism industry be defined by this one weekend,” Dean said. “We simply have to resolve this problem. It has gone on far too long.”