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Charleston tourism cards its best week since COVID-19 during the PGA

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Fans celebrate on the 18th hole during the third round of the PGA Championship on May 22 at The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Touted as a way to kick off the Charleston-area tourism industry's recovery this year, the 2021 PGA Championship held on Kiawah Island this month ushered in the region's best week since the pandemic began, according to new figures. 

For the two weeks leading up to the event, Charleston County's average occupancy rate was down about 10 percent from where it was pre-COVID-19, said Daniel Guttentag, director of the Office of Tourism Analysis at the College of Charleston. The average nightly room rate was flat compared to 2019. 

Then, the week of the championship, which ran from May 18 to May 23, occupancy shot up, and so did rates. About 83 percent of hotel rooms were filled the week of the tournament, compared to about 74 percent the previous seven days. With that, occupancy was actually up 5 percent over the same period of 2019. Average rates had also exceeded pre-COVID figures by 13 percent. 

That's the first time since the start of the pandemic that Charleston hotels were up across the board, in both occupancy and room rates, Guttentag said. 

"Those are just spectacular numbers, to already have a week beating 2019 and not to be talking only about rebounding from 2020," he said. 

Those lodging numbers also speak to the strength of the PGA Championship as a tourism-generating event for the "region as a whole," Guttentag said. 

Hotels on the peninsula and in West Ashley posted the biggest improvements in room rates compared to 2019, which "underscores what was happening," Guttentag said, in that the championship was the catalyst for the particularly well-performing week. 

It was the second time Kiawah Island Golf Resort has hosted the PGA — one of the four annual "majors" on the professional golf calendar — at its Ocean Course. The first go-around was in 2012, and many tourism leaders have credited it with raising the region's profile, particularly on the international travel stage.

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Early estimated projected that its return to the Lowcountry was expected to generate an estimated $100 million economic impact from direct spending, but that was hindered somewhat by a daily spectator cap of 10,000. That limit was set in late February as a COVID-19 precaution, and it meant some ticketholders for the sold-out event were not able to attend.

Even so, the PGA Championship was, by far, the biggest event in the region during the pandemic.  

Tournament director Ryan Ogle couldn't break down the share of attendees between local residents and visitors, but he noted that the number of tickets sold to spectators 200 miles away or farther from Kiawah was higher than normal. 

Ogle described that as evidence the Charleston region "draws people in."

While hotel numbers as high as those the week of the event aren't likely to hold, Guttentag of CofC said it's promising to see that beating pre-pandemic tourism numbers at this point in the recovery is even possible. 

The results serve as a kind of confidence boost for the sector hardest hit by last year's lockdowns. 

"We obviously can't have the PGA every week," he said, "but it's still a nice shot in the arm as we get the tourism season going."

And, as more COVID-19 vaccination shots get into arms, Guttentag predicts the region's recovery should continue to accelerate. 

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

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