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Charleston is Travel + Leisure's No. 1 city again as coronavirus tourism slump continues

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Charleston ranked No. 1 among U.S. cities for the eighth straight year in Travel + Leisure's annual "World's Best" awards. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Charleston has, as of this week, been named the No. 1 U.S. city by Travel + Leisure magazine for eight consecutive years.

But, unlike the seven years prior, the announcement was not made during another blockbuster summer season for tourism in the Holy City. 

Instead, the results of the annual reader survey were rolled out as coronavirus cases continued to climb in South Carolina and tourism officials urged people to wear masks with a growing sense of urgency. 

The success of their industry depends on it.

While the region's visitor sector has recovered some since April, when temporary hotel closures hit their peak, all industry metrics are still substantially lagging behind last year's.

"To have the recovery we’ve seen continue in a meaningful way, the pandemic has to be brought under control to some degree," said Daniel Guttentag, who directs the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis. 

While the 2020 summer travel season couldn't be any more different from the one Charleston saw last year, the Travel + Leisure ranking lineup bears some substantial similarities to the 2019 version. 

That, of course, starts with the top spot going to Charleston which, in this year's blurb, is described as a "genteel city" where visitors obsess over the food. The reader comment, "I've never had a bad meal in Charleston," is offered up as evidence. 

All but one of the top 10 U.S. cities for 2020 held a top 10 spot last year, too. The only outlier was No. 7, San Antonio, which took the slot occupied by Nashville in 2019. Nearby Savannah ranked fourth on both lists. Asheville slid from eighth to ninth. 

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Two Charleston properties to make the cut for a national ranking of the best hotels in U.S. cities. The Wentworth Mansion was tied for seventh place with The Surrey in New York City's Upper East Side, and the John Rutledge House Inn ranked twelfth. 

Charleston's Travel + Leisure streak is a couple years shy of its repeat No. 1 ranking from Condé Nast Traveler. Last year marked nine times that the Holy City had been given a top spot by that publication's readers. 

Condé Nast's 2020 survey recently closed, and results are expected in October. Leaders from the magazine recently spoke about the awards during Explore Charleston's annual meeting which was held in a virtual format last month. 

During their session, they explained some of the metrics that have earned Charleston the top spot for nearly a decade. The city's scores have been rising "across the board" for five years straight, according to Beth Lusko, the company's head of sales for travel. Respondents often submit lengthy essay-like responses about their Charleston experiences, she said. 

Condé Nast's reader survey is the longest-running in the travel industry at 33 years as of the next round of results. This year was the 25th run for the Travel + Leisure survey. 

The No. 1 ranking results aren't arriving at a celebratory time, but Explore Charleston CEO Helen Hill said the award positions the destination well for promotion efforts "when the time is right." 

Tourism is a multi-billion-dollar industry in Charleston and has been steadily growing for years. The industry's economic impact swelled from $8.1 billion to $9.7 billion from 2018 to 2019. 

For the two-month span from mid-March to mid-May, Guttentag's office at the College of Charleston projected a more than $1 billion loss for the local travel industry because of the coronavirus pandemic. And while he plans to compile an updated loss figure eventually, the situation is too unpredictable now to make those estimates, he said.  

The local tourism workforce — which, at the time of last year's Travel + Leisure announcement, included about 40,000 individuals — has also been diminished. Before the state started to reopen, about two-thirds of the sectors' workers were out of a job. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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