Tourism analysis shows $40M impact

While tourists, particularly from other countries, are still flocking to Charleston, attendance at local attractions fell more than 200,000 people last year.

The difference $23 can make: The average Charleston visitor spent that much less each day last year compared with 2007, and the industry's total economic impact to the area fell by $40 million.

That's according to the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis, which conducts monthly hotel occupancy studies and trend reports about attractions and events. Assistant professor Bing Pan, head of research, said that despite millions less last year, the industry's economic impact only declined about 1.3 percent, from $3.09 billion to $3.05 billion.

Attraction attendance showed a more than 200,000-person drop year over year. Traffic at the downtown visitor center also fell by more than 100,000 people.

Pan said attraction attendance consistently decreases as Charleston welcomes more repeat visitors each year.

"You are less likely to visit the Yorktown again if this is your fifth time," he said, referring to the aircraft carrier that anchors the Patroits Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant.

Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said international visitors nearly doubled, to 9 percent in 2008 from 5 percent in 2007. Tourists from Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany showed the greatest increases, according to Hill.

"With the way the economy is going, overall we're thrilled with how well we're doing in Charleston," she said.

Mary Graham, senior vice president of public policy at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, worries most about employment numbers, she said, with leisure and hospitality taking a big hit last year. Job earnings from the industry fell about $100 million in 2008.

"I think it's a sign of the economy," Graham said. "I think it will rebound."

Hotel occupancy dropped 5 percent throughout the Charleston area, and lodging sales fell about $7 million. Gas prices and hurricane threats crushed the usual late summer, early fall traffic in 2008, and the economic slump only worsened soon after.

Total visitors dropped by about 200,000 in 2008, and tourism accounted for 11 percent of all sales in the three-county region, compared with 12 percent the year before.