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South Carolina expects tourism windfall from the solar eclipse. How big is anyone's guess

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Summer is almost over, school's back in session, and on the shores of Lake Marion, tourist season is winding down.

Just not this weekend.

Every hotel is booked solid. So is every campground and marina. A flotilla of kayaks is preparing to head onto the lake Monday afternoon, and thousands of people are getting ready to show up at Santee's town hall to watch the moon obscure the sun.

"Everything that can be rented has been rented," said Mary Shriner, executive director of Santee Cooper Country, a tourism agency. "We don't know what to expect."

She's not alone: No one knows what exactly to expect Monday when the solar eclipse races over South Carolina. But in the narrow ribbon that will be covered by the moon's shadow, everyone's certain the influx will be huge.

Estimates vary on how many visitors might come — it could be as few as 550,000 or as many as 2.2 million — but the crowds will no doubt be impressive. The path of the eclipse runs the full length of South Carolina. It covers the state's three largest cities, and for virtually all of the East Coast, this is as close to home as the eclipse will come.

By that measure, Santee is in for lots of company. The town sits smack in the middle of the eclipse's path, and it's right off Interstate 95.

According to an analysis by Michael Zeiler, an eclipse chaser and cartographer in New Mexico, Santee is the closest eclipse destination for some 75 million people from Florida to Maine. They won't all come, but Shriner speculates 10,000 visitors or so might flood into her corner of Orangeburg County.

"We have nothing to compare this to," she said.

By all accounts, the crush of visitors this weekend will be a boon to the state's economy, a once-in-a-lifetime tourism surge. But economists say it's hard to predict how big an impact it will have because it has little precedent.

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Paula Brager, left, of Rockville, Md. walks into the Francis Marion hotel with her husband Alex on Friday, August 18, 2017. The Bragers traveled to Charleston to see the total solar eclipse and have been planning their trip since February. Marlena Sloss/ Staff

It's not a stretch to compare the eclipse to a major sporting event like a Super Bowl, said Victor Matheson, a Holy Cross professor who's president-elect of the North American Association of Sports Economists.

The typical Super Bowl host city gets a boost of about 10,000 to 15,000 hotel stays from the game, which is roughly equivalent to the increase South Carolina is expecting.

Charleston's 11,900 rooms, for instance, are completely booked, up from about two-thirds last year. Columbia and Greenville account for another 17,000 rooms, and they're sold out, too, when they'd normally be about half-full.

Of course, visitors won't just be staying in hotels. The vacation rental giant Airbnb said it expects roughly 9,500 check-ins here Sunday, making South Carolina the second-most popular state in the country. Most will be in the Lowcountry, but Columbia and Greenville have sold hundreds of rooms, too.

And there are thousands more that will be harder to measure — day trippers and couch surfers who won't show up in the final statistics.

Northwest of Columbia, for instance, Molly Fortune, the executive director of the Newberry Opera House, said she's hosting 20 people at her house and letting friends camp in her backyard. Neighbors down her block are doing the same, and a few parking lots in town have rented spaces to campers.

Still, if the tourism surge is like hosting a big game, Matheson said there are a few important differences.

Visitors didn't have to buy expensive tickets to be here, so they should have more money to spend. The main event will last a few minutes, not several hours, meaning they'll have more time to open their wallets than they would if the Super Bowl was here.

And of course, South Carolina didn't build a new stadium for the eclipse, and there are no sports leagues or organizing committees to share in the windfall.

"I think it's better," Matheson said. "God isn't asking for a cut here."

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Starbucks on King Street advertises its eclipse drink Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

In a sense, the eclipse's economic impact might be the most muted in Charleston, where summer visitors and returning college students would have made for a busy weekend anyway.

In the Lowcountry, the impact of this weekend might be most similar to the Cooper River Bridge Run, said Wayne Smith, who chairs the College of Charleston's tourism management department. In that case, he said, Charleston will get a boost worth about $20 million.

But the eclipse could produce a longer-term impact, he said. ABC, CBS and NBC will all be in town. So will CNN, the Science Channel and NASA TV.

"They're going to be showing the postcard shots of Charleston, and that sort of media attention you can't buy," Smith said. "That type of media exposure is worth millions."

It's also a chance for cities like Columbia to have a moment in the limelight, said Simon Hudson, a University of South Carolina tourism researcher.

If all goes well, he said, the tourists who come to South Carolina will see places they might not have otherwise and they'll tell their friends when they go home.

"We don't have the strongest image in the world as a place to visit but when people do come they always have a wonderful time," Hudson said. "The long-term impacts can be even more significant."

But word of mouth can be a fickle thing, said Matheson, the sports economist.

Once visitors come home from big events, he said, they tend to talk about what they saw, not the city they visited. At the water cooler, the Olympics come up, not Rio de Janeiro.

When it's all over, he said, this weekend's real beneficiaries might be in the path of the next eclipse, not in South Carolina. After all, if tourists have a good time here, they might want to experience a full solar eclipse again.

So when they get their next chance in 2024, they'll remember their trip to Charleston or Columbia, Matheson said — and they'll book a room in Cleveland instead.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.