How 2018 summer tourism fared and the public battle over how to handle the fall season

Grand Strand area landmarks are shown looking north from the Second Avenue Pier on Sept. 7, 2017.
Grand Strand area landmarks are shown looking north from the Second Avenue Pier on Sept. 7, 2017. jlee@thesunnews.com

While the shoulder season is off to a slow start after Hurricane Florence brought record-breaking flooding to the region, officials are reporting an increase in revenue and hotel occupancy this summer season across the Grand Strand.

A survey, released this week by Coastal Carolina University’s Brittain Center for Resort Tourism, shows that average hotel occupancy increased 7.6 percent in 2018.

Building on that success this fall will be difficult after the Category 1 hurricane made landfall Sept. 14 in North Carolina, dumping double-digit rain totals across Horry County while flooding hundreds, if not thousands, of homes.

It’s with that devastation in mind that’s put Myrtle Beach officials in hot water as they continue to encourage tourists to vacation in the area.

“We’ve been extremely mindful of the difficulties that parts of Horry County are going through,” city spokesman Mark Kruea said. “The flooding is horrendous, and we’re aware of that. Myrtle Beach has an audience larger than Horry County, and we need to be able to say to that larger audience we didn’t have any damage here.”

Floodwaters from Hurricane Florence cause flooding along Intracoastal Waterway near Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Facebook posts

A recent post on the city’s Facebook page drew hundreds of negative comments from residents and a state senator, who wanted tourists to stay away from the area as it works to regroup after weeks of flooding.

“Myrtle Beach is open!” the post starts. “The Myrtle Beach area is open for business and ready to welcome you this fall.”

It goes on to warn potential visitors that “travel by car will be challenging” and encourages vacationers to instead book flights.

“I appreciate the tourists and the business they bring, but now isn’t the time to be coming to the beach,” state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch posted on his Facebook page.

According to Kruea, the city makes up 40 percent of Horry County’s retail sales, not including North Myrtle Beach and Carolina Forest.

“If those businesses significantly lose traffic and commerce for an extended period, not only will the Grand Strand have difficulty, all of Horry County is going to have difficulty,” Kruea said.

“I certainly would apologize if that was the message that was received, but I think the intention was to our core vacation group, we’re still here if you’ve got a vacation planned for this time period or next week. You’re going to have a hard time getting here, but we’re okay. That’s the message and that’s not what folks heard, unfortunately.”

Summer season

The summer season for the sake of the CCU study runs from the weekend before Memorial Day and through Sept. 1. It compares results from the same time period in 2017.

Several businesses reported a strong end to the season, despite a slow June.

“It didn’t seem like it was going to kick off real quick and then it did, it’s been pretty steady, busy,” Brian Simpson, Zipline Adventures manager, said in early September. “We did good during the spring break times, and it seemed like, I don’t know what was holding people up.”

Simpson said the Fourth of July was the turning point for tourism.

The Gay Dolphin’s sales surged through most of the season. At the beginning of the month, owner Justin Plyler said sales at the 72-year-old store were up 15 percent compared to last summer.

In the first six weeks of the calendar year, sales dropped 25 percent compared to last year, but he made up for it by mid-April, Plyler said.

“The weather was bad for a good stretch, but we seemed to do well through it irregardless,” Plyler said before Florence hit. “We have had the best Labor Day by far that we’ve had. The past five days has been an extreme percentage up. It’s hard when you’re a 72-year-old business to increase the business a great deal, and we have.”

In 2017, Plyler reported a 20 percent increase in sales in the spring compared to 2016.

While several Myrtle Beach businesses reported a strong spring in 2017, the Ocean Boulevard shooting that drew national attention and the threat of Hurricane Irma hindered the rest of the season.

CCU’s study last year shows average hotel occupancy dropping 4.2 percent in 2017.

The same survey, released Thursday, showed average hotel occupancy increased 7.2 percent, and revenue per available room increased 7.6 percent in 2018.

“I did see a lot of interesting peaks and valleys, that is what they’ve all kind of discussed, during that July and August time frame,” Diana Greene, interim chief of staff at the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said in early September.

Similar statistics were reported in North Myrtle Beach, said George DuRant, vice president of tourism development at the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, and several businesses reported at the beginning of the month.

At Main Slice Pizza, located in North Myrtle Beach, part-owner Derrick Nunziante said his new business had a strong first summer.

“North Myrtle Beach does a really good job of promoting Main Street and bringing people down here, so there’s constantly stuff going on,” Nunziante said. “Overall, the summer as a whole, I couldn’t be happier with it.”

Up in Cherry Grove, the pier reported a busy summer and a steady fishing season. In early September, Steve Gann, who works at the pier, said the business had a very strong June but a slower July due to rain.

Gann said he has seen an increase in the number of tourists migrating to the North Strand.

Comparing if North Myrtle Beach performed better or worse than Myrtle Beach would be “comparing apples to oranges,” DuRant said.

“There will always be people that choose Myrtle Beach, greater Myrtle Beach and those people that would choose the South Strand and people that would choose the North Strand,” DuRant said. “It looks as if they’re settling into those habits over the last five years.”

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