Tourism officials are striking back against the social media stir that incorrectly asserted Grand Strand beaches were closed to swimming and prompted vacation cancellations by addressing the issue through an advertising campaign.
State health officials responded to the rumors earlier this month by conducting dozens of tests from North Myrtle Beach to Garden City to examine bacteria levels, and reported that the results of 44 sites were all well below the risk standard for E. coli.
An advertising campaign urging tourists to visit because the water is not contaminated isn’t the typical promotion from the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce playbook, admits Brad Dean, chamber president.
“This is a unique situation,” Dean said. “The local tourism industry was attacked with this steady campaign of rumor and innuendo. Knowing it would hit the local economy, we had to take this on.”
The public service announcement was distributed Wednesday to area businesses and news organizations, and Dean said they are in the process of creating a budget to run the commercials locally and nationally, as well as in Canada.
The chamber is urging businesses to post the ads on their websites and on social media to diffuse the misinformation. Numerous hotels and lodging businesses have reported cancellations due to the rumors, and Dean said the bleeding hasn’t completely stopped since the test results were conducted by state officials.
“Internet rumors travel far and fast,” Dean said. “This misinformation has spread far and wide, and has the potential to negatively affect business and stifle job creation.”
The 30-second ad is narrated by Stephanie Oswald, editor of Travel Girl Magazine, and begins with the standard beach pitch to vacationers before segueing into the March 14 testing results from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).
Internet rumors travel far and fast.
Brad Dean, president, Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce
“The quality of these waters was questioned recently by a South Carolina-based blog, leading a lot of confirmed and potential visitors to question the quality of these waters,” Oswald said in the ad.
The misinformation was based on signs posted by Myrtle Beach nearly a decade ago near stormwater drain outfalls, which warned swimmers of potential high bacteria levels in the swash after heavy rainfalls.
The swash is a stream that begins at stormwater drain outfalls and reaches across the sand to the ocean. Although wading and seashell collection is considered safe, swimmers are encouraged to move 200 feet away from the signs in either direction after heavy rains.
Jim Beasley, spokesman for DHEC, said the elevations in bacteria are not a permanent condition, but the signs are permanent to educate swimmers about the stormwater runoff from the drains.
Of the 44 beach water monitoring stations tested, 21 showed less than 10 colony farming units per 100 milliliters, 13 stations registered at 10, seven stations showed 20 units, and three stations were higher: 52 units at Eighth Avenue North, 41 units at Pirateland Swash and 30 units at Myrtle Beach State Park.
Dean said the social media buzz caused by the reports has already impacted the local tourism economy, although an exact figure has not been determined.
“It’s too early to put it into dollars, but the potential losses are substantial, so we are addressing an issue that doesn’t exist,” Dean said. “We’re hoping to limit future impacts and recapture some of what we lost. We want to reach visitors who might have been turned away because of misinformation, but would reconsider now, based on facts.”