The Grand Strand puts on a shine as tourists begin flocking to the shore

Myrtle Beach ready for tourist season

Locals take advantage of the calm before the swarm of a record number of tourists expected along the Grand Strand this season.
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Locals take advantage of the calm before the swarm of a record number of tourists expected along the Grand Strand this season.

Local businesses are sprucing up for the coming tourism season — cleaning up amusement rides, adding a gleam to store fronts with fresh coats of paint and hanging new signs — while locals are taking advantage of the warm weather before the crowds descend upon the Grand Strand.

Pearl Abrams of Carolina Forest, wearing a denim hat featuring a loudly and proudly bejeweled “New York,” blended in with the early spring tourists who trampled barefoot or in flip flops along the boardwalk on Wednesday as the temperatures spiked into the mid 70s.

“My favorite place is the boardwalk, looking at the tourists,” Abrams said.

Teenagers are already in swimming shorts or bikinis splashing in the still cool ocean waves, and filled the nearby beach volleyball courts for competitive games.

Retirees lounged in the shade just watching the ocean or eating lunch, and sometimes the two generations mixed.

Heleena Winters is spending her spring vacation here, and took a break from shopping to eat ice cream cones with family.

“I’m mostly just relaxing and enjoying some time together with my grandparents,” said the 23-year-old from Columbia. “I’m making the most of it while I’m here.”

It was the first time for Stephanie Sak, newly relocated to Myrtle Beach, to check out the boardwalk in the heart of the Grand Strand, where patrons lined up to ride the Ferris Wheel, and children raced through the arcade to play games in the hopes of winning prizes.

“The air is so nice and fresh down here,” said Sak, who moved to the area from Pennsylvania last fall.

“I wanted to check it out before it gets too busy,” Sak said.

Busy is exactly how many local officials are already describing the spring and summer tourism season.

Airlines don’t add seat capacity unless there’s a demand for it.

Kirk Lovell, assistant director of Horry County Airports

With gas prices still at reasonable rates under $2 a gallon and the number of flights into Myrtle Beach International Airport increasing this year, the lodging forecast for the next six weeks is up compared to the same period last year, said Taylor Damonte, director of the Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism.

Occupancy of nightly rentals is expected to be up 2 to 6 percent, and Easter weekend occupancy typically runs between 80 and 90 percent, Damonte said.

“This is the first time since I’ve been tracking this in 13 years that Passover has not overlapped with Easter — the first day of Passover this year is April 23,” Damonte said. “What impact that will have on the travel calendar of visitors is a little unclear at this point.

“Most professionals look to the Easter and Passover period to make any prediction about summer, mainly because this is a family market. So, it’s our first test of the year.”

Area festivals and events will continue to be a strong draw for the Grand Strand, Damonte said, including the Canadian American Festival that begins this weekend, and the Run to the Sun Car Show beginning March 17.

Kirk Lovell, assistant director of Horry County Airports, says there is more seat capacity for passengers to fly to the Grand Strand than ever before, thanks in part to an announcement last week by Allegiant that new routes will be added beginning in June from Harrisburg, Penn., Toledo, Ohio, and Stewart, N.Y.

This spring will bring 19,000 additional seats on incoming flights, 17,000 during the summer months, and 15,500 for the fall season, Lovell said.

“Airlines don’t add seat capacity unless there’s a demand for it,” Lovell said. “There’s more seat capacity in our market than ever before.

“So what that means, if passengers buy tickets we could see another successful year in 2016 which could exceed 2015.”

Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said the trends toward increasing airline flights and hotel and condo bookings are promising.

“We’re very encouraged so far with what we’re seeing in the tourism industry,” Dean said. “The spring is very solid, we expect the occupancy rate to be up for the summer season. It’s still very early, but all indications are that we’re going to have a very solid summer, if not the busiest on record.”

Dean noted that few major attractions or theme parks have opened in the area, but said that several existing attractions have expanded promotions or changed exhibits.

I’m mostly just relaxing and enjoying some time together with my grandparents.

Heleena Winters of Columbia

“Ripley’s will always provide some entertainment aspect, so what we see this year is not a huge expansion in new attractions, but rather improvements upon what we already have,” Dean said. “For the Myrtle Beach area, we have to continually refresh the product to bring people back.”

A new go-kart amusement park and arcade on the south end of Restaurant Row is scheduled to open this summer, which will feature two electric go-kart racing areas on multilevel tracks, a rookie track and a track for small children.

Additionally, the Rockin’ Jump ultimate trampoline park plans to open at 2200 N. Oak Street in the former Office Depot building across from the Myrtle Beach Convention Center by late spring.

The 23,000 square foot space will include an open jumping arena, two trampoline dodge ball courts, a slam dunk zone, a stunt bag area, rock climbing walls and a play area for kids under 5 years old.

We’re very encouraged so far with what we’re seeing in the tourism industry.

Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce

New businesses are also coming to Broadway at the Beach, including the area’s first Dave & Buster’s and an American Tap House, along with changes at OZ nightclub. But that transformation won’t begin until winter.

The Hard Rock Cafe Myrtle Beach will get a new location, and all are part of a plan by Broadway owner Burroughs and Chapin Co. Inc. to refresh the 20-year-old entertainment, shopping and restaurant complex that attracts some 14 million visitors annually.

Melissa Armstrong, marketing director of Burroughs & Chapin, said in a statement the company expects the entire Grand Strand area will see an increase in visitors due to the additional airline service and affordable gas prices.

“Whenever that happens, Broadway benefits by drawing new guests along with the many repeat visitors who come to Broadway year after year,” Armstrong said.

Audrey Hudson 843-444-1765; Twitter @AudreyHudson