S.C. tourism up despite tragedies Industry saw more hotel stays, $1.1B in investments

A carriage moves through the City Market area in downtown Charleston on Wednesday. State officials announced tourism in South Carolina has grown to become a $19.1 billion industry.

South Carolina’s tourism industry boasted broad-based gains in key categories over the past two years, according to new figures from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

“It’s striking that economic indicators for tourism ... are up across the board, showing significant levels of growth over previous years,” Duane Parrish, the agency’s director, said Wednesday. “The recent performance of our industry is unprecedented in South Carolina’s history and points to an exciting future.”

Last year, tourism-related investments totaled $1.1 billion, and hotel occupancy rose about 2 percent from 2014 to an average of about 62 percent, the agency said during its annual conference in Charleston. That included the October floods that Parrish said caused “a tidal wave” of cancellations and took an estimated $35 million bite out of the industry.

He called the national media coverage of the historic rains “both a blessing and a curse” because it brought in financial assistance and other forms of aid to affected parts of South Carolina while also giving “the impression that the entire state was in a shambles.”

Two other major events showed the state in a negative light nationally that left tourism officials scrambling to fend off — the shooting of Walter Scott in April and the killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June, Gov. Nikki Haley pointed out during the conference Wednesday.

After Scott’s shooting and the potential fallout of rioting that followed other police-involved shootings of black citizens across the country, Haley said, “We had to figure out how to tell the rest of the country that’s not who we are.”

After the church shootings, she said people everywhere “watched in awe” at the responses of the victims’ families and how the community pulled together.

And after the floods, she said neighbors helped neighbors, and tourism officials got the word out nationally that the entire state was not under water and it was OK to visit.

In all three tragedies, Haley said it was the people of the state who responded in admirable fashion.

“That’s a paid advertisement we can’t put a price on,” she said.

Haley called the “graceful sweet spot” about South Carolina that people saw on TV at times last year a year-round event in the Palmetto State.

She touted the state’s third record-breaking year for tourism as evidence of the sector’s impact on the economy.

Tourism officials also pointed to some of the key metrics for the industry last year.

Hotel revenue climbed in the “per available room” category last year to more than $65 — an increase of 7 percent, outpacing the 6.3 percent U.S. growth rate.

Other tourism figures also showed gains.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, state admissions tax collections increased more than 8 percent to nearly $37 million compared to the previous 12 months. For the same period, revenue at state parks climbed 12 percent to $26.9 million, making the properties 94 percent self-sufficient.

The department also reported that tourism had a $19.1 billion statewide economic impact for all of 2014, a lagging figure that’s about 12 months behind last year’s total. The 2014 figure was up 5.5 percent from the previous year.

“It enhances our quality of life,” Parrish said of the industry. “It provides a livelihood for one in 10 of us. And it has a tremendous impact on the rest of our state’s economy.”

Parrish was in the Lowcountry this week for the Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Travel, which ended Wednesday.

He also announced a new “Satisfy Your Thirst” marketing campaign focusing on South Carolina’s “liquid assets,” including locally produced tea, milk, craft beers and distilled beverages.

The department also plans to place more emphasis on promoting South Carolina as a golf destination and explore more opportunities internationally in 2016, Parrish said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Allison Prang at 843-937-5705 or on Twitter @AllisonPrang. Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.