Visitor industry officials knew Hurricane Florence would be bad for business, but a new estimate shows the revenue losses were much larger than anticipated.
The Office of Tourism Analysis at the College of Charleston last week projected the region lost $65 million in visitor spending during Hurricane Florence. But an updated figure issued Tuesday now estimates that figure was more than 70 percent higher — at about $111.3 million.
The original projected loss was $9.3 million a day over seven days. The new estimate assumes a $15.9 million loss every day for the week.
The college's tourism office comes up with its economic impact estimates by using occupancy rates to estimate total visitors, assuming an average visitor's daily spending at $217 — a figure based on a 2017 survey — and running those numbers through an economic modeling software, said Melinda Patience, research coordinator.
The initial estimate was based on hotel data from previous weather events, she said. But when the office received the actual average occupancy rates for Sept. 9 to Sept. 15, they were "significantly lower" than what they had seen during past storms, Patience said.
Researchers expected a roughly 30 percent decrease during Florence compared to an average year without a major weather event, she said. Instead, the decline was about 52 percent.
Hotel occupancy was down about 32 percent compared to last year, when check-ins were dampened by Hurricane Irma.
For the past four years, hotel occupancy has been hurt by weather events, but the drop during Florence was greater than during the last three events combined.
Irma prompted an 11.3 percent year-to-year decline in occupancy last September, and Hurricane Matthew caused a 5 percent drop in 2016. Flooding from sustained rain storms dropped occupancy by 6.8 percent in October 2015.
Patience said part of the disparity could be explained by the fact that the Florence evacuation for coastal South Carolina was called earlier than during previous storms. Because of that, businesses that cater to visitors closed sooner.
Major attractions like Patriots Point, the South Carolina Aquarium and Fort Sumter decided to shut their doors just hours after Gov. Henry McMaster declared the evacuation on Sept. 11. Charleston International Airport was closed for two days, resulting in several hundred canceled flights.
The governor's office said McMaster made the evacuation call based on forecasts for the start of tropical-force winds at the time, but Florence slowed as it approached the Carolinas.
Michael Tall, vice chair for the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the storm-related losses "are an impactful reminder" of importance of tourism on the region's economy.
"Getting visitation back to normal levels and providing paychecks for our valued employees is our number-one priority," he said.
The Grand Strand tourist industry also was hit hard by Florence, but loss estimates for that area were not available Tuesday.