Capital sale Columbia pushes to attract more tourists

A jogger and her dog run across a bridge at the Columbia Riverfront Park. In recent years, South Carolina's state capital has had an estimated 1 million visitors a year.

COLUMBIA - When you think of visiting South Carolina, thoughts of waterfalls in the upstate, carriages in Charleston's Historic District and waves washing the shore in Myrtle Beach. But between the mountains and the sea, Columbia is redoubling its efforts to attract visitors as it markets itself as "Famously Hot."

For years, Columbia's attraction for visitors was mainly that it was the state capital and home to the University of South Carolina, said Kim Jamieson, spokeswoman for the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism. Those will always be important but there is so much more for visitors, she said.

"We are trying to change that mindset that people have about Columbia," Jamieson said. "It's a challenge but it's exciting to be able to change that perception."

She said things began changing seven to eight years ago.

"I don't think that we fully had a handle on what we wanted to be as a region. We pulled together a lot of community partners and we asked, 'what is our identity?' " she said.

The result was a more unified marketing approach promoting the region as "Famously Hot," which Columbia summers certainly are, away from the cool mountain air and the sea breezes.

"It is the new Southern hot spot and that is something we have carried through with our branding," she said.

The world-class Riverbanks Zoo, the Columbia Museum of Art, the Congaree Riverwalk and the nearby Congaree National Park are all attractions the area promotes.

The boyhood home of Woodrow Wilson is in Columbia and the historic site reopens next month after almost $4 million in renovations.

The South Carolina State Museum is located in an old 1893 textile mill.

Later this year the museum opens "Windows to New Worlds," an addition including, among other attractions, an observatory, planetarium, theater and a gallery of historic telescopes. Museum officials expect the new features to result in an additional 75,000 visitors a year.

The Columbia 63 effort has sponsored a series of events commemorating the civil rights movement and markers noting key Columbia events will be unveiled this year on Main Street.

The marketing effort also promotes the city's food, shopping and entertainment offerings along Main Street, the Congaree Vista and in Five Points near the university campus.

The effort is working and the area now draws an estimated 1 million visitors a year, a number Jamieson said is probably conservative.

A study by the U.S. Travel Association for the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism shows that in 2012, domestic travelers spent almost $572 million in Richland County, where Columbia is located.

That was fifth among counties statewide and represented about 5 percent of the South Carolina total. About 6,100 people in the county were employed in tourism.

By contrast in Horry County, where Myrtle Beach is located, domestic travelers spent $3.5 billion, almost a third of the state total. Horry is the state's top tourism county and almost 38,000 people there make a living in the industry.

Jamieson said Columbia faces the same challenges being near Charleston and Myrtle Beach as other towns near big tourist destinations like Orlando and New York.

"We're not so far off the map so people don't know where we are but we also have to make sure people are aware and we want to make sure to work to continuously to entice them," she said.