Myrtle Beach’s tourism businesses are ready — and waiting.
Hurricane Florence largely spared the Grand Strand, but, as flooding continues on roadways in Horry County, the drive into and out of the area remains hazardous.
So, although most Myrtle Beach hotels, restaurants, attractions, and other businesses have opened their doors, they’re cautioning travelers that the trip there could be treacherous. Floodwaters have closed sections of Interstate 95, S.C. 9, S.C. 707 and S.C. 22, cutting off many of the connections to the area.
"We have a wait and see attitude about the flooding," said Julie Ellis, spokesperson for the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Generating about $7 billion a year, Myrtle Beach's tourism industry still leads the state, and, though the area is anxious to market to visitors again, officials are cautious about sending out that messaging too soon, Ellis said.
Instead, many of the area's hotels, restaurants and attractions are encouraging residents fleeing flooding in North Carolina and South Carolina to take refuge in Myrtle Beach.
Almost 30 hotels are offering discounted rates to people displaced by the floodwaters. Rooms are being offered for as little as $25 a night.
Several attractions and restaurants have also offered deals. LuLu's, a restaurant in North Myrtle Beach, is serving up free cheeseburgers and soft drinks to "anyone who has been misplaced or has financial hardship" due the storm. Attractions like WonderWorks and Pirate Adventures are selling tickets at less than half the regular cost.
For visitors who aren't escaping flooding, the Myrtle Beach Area CVB is encouraging travelers to fly into the Myrtle Beach International and, if they do choose to drive, to avoid the travel delays and closures to the north and west by arriving from the south, up Highway 17, Ellis said.
The Grand Strand itself is “in great shape,” said George DuRant, vice president for tourism development with the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, and local business owners are eager to make up for lost time.
“Imagine all our hospitality workers and owners waiting eagerly at the front door,” he said.
Though the storm itself left only minor damage in Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, successful evacuations and the threat of a more direct hit by Florence caused mass cancellations last week.
“We basically had to flush the entire tourist population out of the area,” said Stephen Greene, CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association.
Some visitors cancelled reservations in the Myrtle Beach area after the storm, too, due to the residual flooding, but many still wanted to make the trip, he said. Activity was already picking up by mid-week, and Greene expected occupancy to continue to climb going into the weekend.
“We’re very blessed to have taken minimal damage this time,” Greene said.
The loss of tourism revenue in the Grand Strand hasn't been determined, but Duane Parrish, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, estimates the statewide loss was well over $100 million. The College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis estimated a $65 million hit in Charleston alone.
"Safety takes precedence over commerce," Parrish said. "But there's always a financial loss."
In an effort to recoup some of that loss, almost 70 percent of the $1 million his agency will spend on social media, television ads and other marketing materials between now and the end of October will focus on the coast, Parrish estimated.
Without the storm, the majority of that spending would have gone toward what the department calls, "undiscovered South Carolina," lesser-known cities, parks and other attractions throughout the state.
However, their destination-specific messaging has notable exceptions: Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach. Right now, the ads focus on Charleston, Hilton Head and Beaufort.
The Myrtle Beach area will be added to the promotional push once flooding has cleared, Parrish said.
Until then, DuRant said, Grand Strand officials will focus on making sure visitors who make the trip this week do so safely. And they'll continue to stay grateful for the little damage the area sustained, he said.
“We have deep and heartfelt respect for our neighbors to the north,” DuRant said. “It easily could have been us.”