Fueling economy Gas prices falling as S.C. summer tourism season heats up

AAA’s daily fuel report Monday said the average price in the Palmetto State was $3.35 for a gallon of regular unleaded.

Having dodged its first tropical storm scare of 2012, South Carolina is looking to this holiday weekend and a solid start to the summer travel season.

One reason behind the optimism is gas prices. They’re about 8 percent lower compared to last Memorial Day.

AAA Carolinas on Monday said South Carolina had the lowest average prices in the nation. According to the travel club’s daily fuel update, the average for the Palmetto State was $3.35 for a gallon of regular unleaded, down eight cents from a week ago and about 29 cents lower than this time last year.

Of the major metro areas in South Carolina, Columbia and the Greenville-Spartanburg area had the cheapest places to fill up at $3.30. The average price in the state is highest in Charleston at nearly $3.41.

It wasn’t long ago that the state’s $15 billion a year tourism industry was fretting about gas topping $4 a gallon by summer and pinching the drive-in visitor market. Instead, prices have been edging down in recent weeks for numerous reasons, including a drop in demand from China for oil.

“While gas is still expensive, it certainly hasn’t gone in the direction people were afraid it was going to go. There were some dire predictions,” said Marion Edmonds, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. “You adjust to it and plug it into your planning.”

He said weather is another factor that directly affects the industry. Tropical Storm Alberto, which lingered off the state’s coast over the weekend before drifting south, isn’t expected to hurt Memorial Day tourism in South Carolina.

“It happened early enough,” Edmonds said.

The National Weather Service and Weather.com websites show chamber of commerce-like forecasts for the holiday weekend, with mostly sunny skies and balmy temperatures peaking in the mid- to high 80s.

Tourism already is off to a good start in 2012, Edmonds said, The average occupancy rate at hotels statewide through April were up about 4.5 percent from 2011. Reservations at state parks are a doing little better at 5.6 percent,

“Things are looking up year to date,” Edmonds said.

Memorial Day weekend brings an extra jolt to Charleston’s hospitality industry because it coincides with the opening of Spoleto Festival USA. The 17-day arts extravaganza, which officially starts Friday, draws visitors to the city from around the world.

Charleston’s visitor numbers also have been helped by the arrival of Southwest Airlines last year, Edmonds said. For travelers who prefer to drive than fly, gas prices could go lower.

Charlotte-based AAA Carolinas plans to compile its pre-Memorial Day fuel report today. Spokesman Tom Crosby predicted prices will continue to drop barring some unexpected global calamity or disruption.

“I think another 10- or 15-cent drop is not unlikely,” he said Monday. He added that prices are volatile and subject to quick changes.

“Hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico are a big worry this time of year” because they can affect the production at refineries in that region, Crosby said. “Even the threat of a hurricane can affect gas prices in the Carolinas.”

Bruce Smith of TheAssociated Press contributed to this report.