MB Chamber says we had 18.6 million visitors in 2016. The state says 8.2 million. Why?

Sunbathers fill the beach near 24th Avenue South on Thursday, July 21 2016.
Sunbathers fill the beach near 24th Avenue South on Thursday, July 21 2016. jlee@thesunnews.com

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce estimates that 18.6 million people visited the Grand Strand during 2016. The state estimates it was 8.2 million for the whole county.

So why the difference?

“Horry County is comparing apples to oranges with the rest of the state,” said Duane Parrish, the director of the South Carolina Department of Parks Recreation and Tourism. “Our number is low, and we know that.”

Parrish said the state uses an algorithm based on occupancy of chain hotels and motels, which don’t make up as large a percentage of beds along the Grand Strand as they do in other places in the state.

He said the state can't use a different algorithm just for the Grand Strand. That's resulted in a difference between the Myrtle Beach chamber’s count and the state’s tourism count for decades.

“When you drive down Ocean Boulevard, a lot of them aren’t chain hotels,” Parrish said.

Another problem is lack of local knowledge, with the state often underestimating the capacity of the area’s hotels and campgrounds.

“We’re using variables that we can’t apply to Horry County because Horry County is so unique,” Parrish said, adding that Horry County has the highest percentage of vacation rental units in the state, which are harder to track than traditional hotels.

Brad Dean, CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber doesn’t come up with its numbers on its own, instead relying on outside research agency D.K. Shifflet, which does research for other major U.S. cities, such as Orlando, Florida.

The chamber buys a package from Shifflet that includes a visitor count and visitor information, such as length of stay and average party size. The chamber paid Shifflet $8,995 in 2013 with money from the Myrtle Beach Accommodations Tax, the Tourism Development Fee and private funds, according to Dean.

Since then, the annual cost has risen by a few thousands dollars, with the 2017 package costing $10,300 and paid for by the accommodations tax and tourism development fee.

View looking North from Second Avenue Pier. Grand Strand area landmarks on Sept. 7, 2017. JASON LEE jlee@thesunnews.com

“Shifflet uses a model that is adaptable to the factors unique to a destination,” Dean said. “I think one major difference is PRT’s model is a statewide model. I suspect the PRT model is better suited to a tourism industry populated by traditional hotels. Comparing Horry’s tourism to 45 other counties is like comparing Chick-Fil-A to Ruth’s Chris.”

Parrish said that the state model doesn’t include independent hotels, campgrounds or AirBNB properties. He said when the state uses local occupancy numbers generated by Coastal Carolina University, the number of visitors to the county hits 18.1 million.

Another thing both Parrish and Dean agree on is that the numbers are still just estimates and not an actual count of visitors.

“It’s not unlike estimating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin,” Dean said, adding that the 2017 numbers would probably be released by Shifflet this summer.

Christian Boschultm 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian