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Spoleto continues to keep Charleston on the world tourism map

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The Australia-based Gravity & Other Myths circus company performed an excerpt from its acrobatic "Backbone" show at the conclusion of the Spoleto Festival USA opening ceremonies in front of Charleston City Hall Friday, May 25, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

When the first Spoleto Festival was held in Charleston more than 40 years ago, the city was drawing a little more than 2 million tourists a year, about a third of the crowds we see today.

The festival gets a lot of the credit — or blame, if that's your preference — for the increase. It remains a pillar in the city's marketing efforts to attract affluent visitors from around the world.

Started in 1977, Spoleto USA was Charleston's first big event, sparking conversations about how to manage the growing number of tourists.

A year after Spoleto started, in February 1978, the Charleston County Park, Recreation and Tourism Commission issued a report titled "Tourism Impact and Management Study Charleston South Carolina."

The study starts off: "The dramatic increase in tourist-related activity in Charleston over the past few years has provoked expressions of alarm by residents concerned with maintaining the amenities and quality for which the city is known. Moreover, there is general recognition that the city is not equipped adequately to serve and manage growing numbers of visitors."

Since then, the visitor count has grown to 6 million, and the city has come up with several plans to preserve the things that make Charleston special. For better or worse, the annual arts festival gets a lot of the credit for making Charleston an international destination. Its influence goes far beyond the visitors it will draw these next two weeks.

"The festival has always elevated the perception of Charleston as a destination,” said Helen Hill, CEO of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Charleston is known for celebrating the past, but Spoleto’s avant garde performances and world premieres show that the city is also pushing forward, she said.

The College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis estimated Spoleto's economic impact in 2016 at $42 million, or about $2.5 million a day for the 17-day festival.

There’s no official estimate of how many visitors the festival draws. About 61,000 tickets were sold last year, but many people attended more than one event, Spoleto Festival Marketing Director Jessie Bagley pointed out. About half of the tickets were bought by local residents, she said.

About 500 mostly local residents turned out Friday afternoon for the opening ceremony outside City Hall, welcoming the performers back to Charleston with a big bang, colorful confetti and white streamers floating down on the palmetto trees.

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Georgia and Terry Tsurutis, sitting in chairs in a shady spot on the other side of Broad Street, have been attending since the first festival in 1977.

"This is why we live in Charleston," she said. "Performers come from all over the world."

Maybe 40 years ago, Spoleto could take credit for filling downtown hotels in May. Now the hotels are pretty much full anyway, especially on Memorial Day.

"It’s already a busy time here in Charleston, and it makes it that much sweeter," according to Alex Bailey, communications manager for the 440-room Belmond Charleston Place. "It brings in great publicity."

This year’s opening ceremonies seemed intent on sending out a message that Charleston could be sort of a light of the world in a time of tensions.

"In seasons of turmoil that tend to divide us, our hope in the next few days is that art will unite us," Pastor Greg Surratt of Seacoast Church said in his opening prayer.

Playwright Henry Naylor, author of "Borders," a performance that focuses on the Syrian refugee crisis, called the festival "a true celebration of humanity."

"The world is becoming angrier and angrier," he said. "We’re losing our ability to debate … treating disagreements as personal insults. … This is where the arts come in … helping us understand ourselves a little better."

Mayor John Tecklenburg, a jazz pianist, pointed out that Charleston has always been a center for the arts, and the Spoleto Festival has sent that message around the world.

"The arts are what connect us," he said.

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.

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