Charleston Visitor Center closed

The Charleston Visitor Center closed at noon Tuesday as coastal South Carolina counties were evacuated ahead of Hurricane Florence's expected landfall somewhere in the Carolinas. David Wren/Staff

During a time of year that's typically one of the best for Lowcountry tourism, a lone pair of visitors browsed the brochures at the Charleston Visitor Center on Tuesday as staffers prepared to shut its doors for the rest of the week.

"It makes me so sad," Helen Hill, CEO of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said of the business lost to Hurricane Florence, which is threatening the Carolinas and Virginia.

"Unfortunately, it's a big loss for us," Hill said.

Hotel owners in the Charleston region started telling guests to rethink this week's vacations after Gov. Henry McMaster's order for a mandatory evacuation of South Carolina's coast. The evacuation, announced Monday, started at noon Tuesday and included lane reversals on Interstate 26 out of Charleston and U.S. 501 out of Myrtle Beach to help motorists get out of town.

By Tuesday afternoon, McMaster had lifted the evacuation for three southernmost coastal counties as the hurricane appeared to be on a northwestern path.

But for Charleston area hotels, which typically enjoy occupancy rates of 85 percent this time of year, the financial damage was being assessed even as blue skies belied the offshore threat.

"At this point, budget goes out the window," said Dan Blumenstock, director of operations for Lowcountry Hotels, which owns several area lodgings, including the Ansonborough Inn on the peninsula. "You have to look at safety and security first, and then you move on from there."

Many area hotels are relaxing cancellation policies that typically require a 48- to 72-hour notice to avoid a one-night room charge. That lets those guests who are planning a weekend trip wait to see what Florence will do before making a final decision.

Most of those planning mid-week vacations, though, "have already looked at the weather and said, 'We're not going to risk it,;" Blumenstock said.

At least 26 conventions and meeting groups canceled events this week, Hill of the CVB said, some of them leaving after the evacuation order. Other events planned for this weekend have already been rescheduled, she said.

Business farther north is also being affected, with passenger carts removed from the iconic SkyWheel in downtown Myrtle Beach as a precaution and businesses from the Gay Dolphin gift store to Gorden Biersch, a brewery and restaurant, shutting down.

"Our phone lines are extremely busy and we appreciate your patience," Ocean Lakes Campground in Surfside Beach told guests on its website. The resort is closing Wednesday and offering refunds to anyone who had a reservation.

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The concerns aren't just onshore. Some passengers on the Carnival Ecstasy cruise ship scheduled to leave the Port of Charleston on Sunday raised questions on Internet message boards about the hurricane's potential impact to their journey. Carnival said there has been no change to the itinerary, which includes a six-day trip to Bermuda.

Hill declined to say whether McMaster's evacuation order — made days before any potential landfall — came too soon.

"We just depend on the governor's office to be in charge of that, and we deal with the outcome of it," she said.

Sometimes business can be salvaged. Blumenstock said a couple who had planned a wedding on Folly Beach inquired about moving the ceremony to one of his company's properties.

But most often, the outcome is a canceled reservation — business that's gone forever.

"Once that hotel room night isn't sold, we've lost it," Hill said. "We continue to work really hard to re-book those folks. That's about the best we can do — move it forward."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_