After years of struggling through the recession and its murky aftermath, tourism in the Palmetto State is on the rise again.
Hotel room sales, admissions to state parks and other tourism-related factors have now met and even surpassed pre-recession levels of 2007, according to reports by the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
The recovery mirrors the state's overall economic rebound. The University of South Carolina's economic outlook report released last week predicts job growth to increase by 1.7 percent next year. It also predicts growth in the state's key industries, including tourism.
New growth in the most popular tourist spots such as Charleston and Myrtle Beach signals that the state's tourism industry has not only made a comeback from the recession, but that South Carolina has become one of the top travel destinations in the region.
As one of the top industries in the state, tourism supports about 6 percent of the state's nonagricultural jobs, according to the state's Parks, Recreation and Tourism department. Plus, the state-imposed accommodations tax, or 7 percent sales tax on lodging, generates tens of millions of dollars in state revenue each year.
During the Great Recession that began in December 2007 and officially ended in June 2009, South Carolina saw a major drop-off in visitors and hotel sales. Many tourism professionals lost their jobs, and tax revenue fell until 2010, reports show.
Frank Fredericks, chairman of the Charleston Area Convention Center and Visitors Bureau, was appointed managing director of Wild Dunes Resort on the Isle of Palms in late 2007, just before the recession's effects set in.
"I think like for many folks, it snuck up on us," Fredericks said. "We suddenly saw the number of travelers falling off, and the rate people were willing to pay fell off."
The resort, like many across the country, had to learn to cut costs while increasing its visitors.
"Wild Dunes had to drastically reduce its staff," Fredericks said. "It was painful. When you have to lay people off, it's absolutely painful, but I'm happy we're past those days."
Wild Dunes was actually quicker to bounce back than some of the other resorts owned by its parent company, Destination Hotels and Resorts, Fredericks said.
He thinks the speedy recovery was in part driven by positive national media attention and by visitors brought to Charleston for weddings.
Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, said the outlook for tourism in Myrtle Beach reached a new low in 2008.
"We saw double-digit declines in 2008, but what was most alarming was the projections for 2009, which indicated that we could see a 20 to 30 percent drop," he said.
For many tourism professionals, 2013 was the bookend of a long road to recovery, said Duane Parrish, director of the state PRT.
On the upswing
The industry climbed to its pre-recession strength by the end of 2012, and figures so far this year show that tourism is even more robust than before the economy's decline.
The fiscal year from June 2007 to July 2008 is widely considered the year before the recession's effects hit, so it's often used as a basis of comparison to gage the tourism industry's recovery, Parrish said.
Accommodations taxes brought in $5.4 million more this year than in 2007-08, showing about a 12 percent gain.
State parks also saw more revenue this year than in the past five years, which was fueled by statewide tourism growth, Parrish said. Parks earned about $21 million in 2007-08, and that has grown to $22.3 million this year.
"In terms of business and revenue, our 44 state parks have had a record fiscal year," Parrish said.
Hotel earnings so far this year also have surpassed what they were before the recession, according to reports by the state PRT.
And although hotels' occupancy rate is about 1 percent weaker than it was in 2007-08, Parrish said that can be attributed to the fact that there are more hotels in the state today.
"At first glance, that doesn't tell the true story. The inventory of hotel rooms has increased by about 5 percent since 2007, so even though the occupancy is less, there are still more rooms occupied," he said.
New attractions such as the new Skywheel, a 187-foot-tall Ferris wheel in Myrtle Beach; more airline services, and industrywide marketing campaigns are among the many factors that have helped South Carolina's tourism enterprise get back on its feet, Parrish said.
For Charleston, the accolades from publications such as Conde Nast and Travel + Leisure certainly helped bring in visitors.
"That encourages new and more affluent travelers to explore Charleston," Fredericks said. "They want to explore our waterways, our historic sites, our museums, our festivals."
Now that tourism is out of the woods, it has the potential to pull up other lagging industries in the state.
"It helps bring back business," Parrish said.
In Myrtle Beach, tourism's rebound has helped the real estate market recover. Vacation properties are seeing more renovations, and new visitors are now investing in them, Dean said.
"Not only is (tourism) our biggest creator of jobs, it also feeds other industries," he said. "To say it's a top industry is an understatement."
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail