Area beaches boom, despite shark scares

Rental properties line the beach on Isle of Palms. Occupancy rates for vacation rentals were up this summer.

More people stayed at the beach this summer and more sharks seemed to show up, too.

Overnight visitors at Folly Beach, Isle of Palms and Kiawah Island were up over last year. Some 86 percent of vacation rental housing was occupied for the month of July, up 10 percent from last year, according to vacation rental management companies.

A similar trend was reported for May and June, but July was by far the busiest month for people being in second homes either as renters, owners or their guests.

“The beach communities have done very well this year. It definitely was an improvement over 2014 for the last couple of months,” said Melinda Patience, research coordinator at the Office of Tourism Analysis of the College of Charleston School of Business.

“The overall revenue increase in June was 12 percent. That’s a large leap over last year,” she said.

The School of Business prepared the report using numbers provided by Avocet Hospitality Group for Folly Beach; Island Realty and Wild Dunes Resort for Isle of Palms; Kiawah Island Golf Resort; and Wyndham Vacation Rentals for Isle of Palms and the Kiawah area.

Data for August was not yet available.

Meanwhile, shark encounters were in the news in the Carolinas, particularly after a victim on the Outer Banks lost an arm during an attack. Fortunately, the Palmetto State shark bites were not as serious.

A vacationer at Hunting Island State Park was attacked in late June and a man swimming off Sullivan’s Island was bitten in May. In July, a shark bit a 12-year-old Utah boy swimming at Isle of Palms County Park. There were also shark bites reported on Edisto Island and at Murrells Inlet.

But word of the South Carolina shark attacks did not seem to dampen summer crowds. That many shark encounters occurred the year before, too.

But there was a different twist when commercial fishermen landed an 800-pound, 13-foot tiger shark in August less than a mile off the Washout, the popular surfing spot at Folly Beach. They also hooked and brought ashore a 400- to 500-pound shark earlier that night and a few days earlier pulled in a 700-pound shark that was 11 feet long. In early May, an angler on Isle of Palms reeled in a 10-foot lemon shark from just beyond the surf.

Despite all the shark news, Folly Mayor Tim Goodwin said the usual crowds filled the beach. “Hopefully they will hang around a little bit longer. The sharks are at bay and it seems pretty quiet right now,” he said.

IOP Mayor Dick Cronin said that although occupancy rates were up as reported by the vacation rental companies, what he saw this summer in terms of crowds was the same as last year.

“When the island is full it’s full. It was full last year and it was full this year. It wasn’t like there was 10 or 15 percent more folks on the beach that we could see,” he said.

Next summer, IOP plans to implement a managed parking plan for residential areas. Sullivan’s Island has also been considering doing the same out of concern that people will flock to Sullivan’s if parking there remains free.

Paying customers occupied 68 percent of rental property on the islands in July, up about 8 percent from last year.

The average daily rate ranged from $248 for one bedroom to about $1,100 for houses with five or more bedrooms.

The one-bedroom offerings saw the biggest jump, climbing 13 percent in occupancy to nearly 80 percent. In comparison, occupancy of the biggest houses with five or more bedrooms dropped 17 percent to about 79 percent.

Overall, revenue from beach rentals climbed nearly 20 percent in July to an average daily rate of $329.

August figures are not yet available, officials said.

On Isle of Palms, municipal accommodations tax revenue was up 12 percent in May and 6 percent in June. Charleston County accommodations tax “pass-through” revenues were up 27 percent for the island fiscal year ending June 30.

At Folly, hospitality tax revenue, which reflects the volume of business at restaurants, was up 13 percent in June over last year. Accommodations tax revenue from overnight stays at hotels, inn and rentals was up 7 percent.

“We also had a tremendous increase in medical, police and fire service calls this summer, with almost 1,500 more calls this summer than last. These were for June, July and August, and it’s a 75 percent increase,” said Spencer Wetmore, assistant to Goodwin.

Police Chief Andrew Gilreath said the increase in calls was in part because of more visitors. However, the department has increased foot patrols to have a stronger presence in the business district and on the beach and it has worked to build bridges with the community, he said.

Police calls at Sullivan’s Island were down about 5 percent in June, July and August compared with last year. Fire calls fell by more than 10 percent during the same time. Isle of Palms police had about 1,550 calls for service in June through August of 2014. For the same time period in 2015, the department received at least 1,516 calls for service, but one week of calls was missing from the city’s online data for police calls during that time.

Mr. John’s Beach Store on Center Street has served Folly and its visitors since 1951.

“It was a good year,” said owner Paul Chrysostom.

“I had a really strong June. July started out kind of slow but toward the end it really picked up,” he said.