Sun and fun mean more than ever to South Carolina as new figures show tourism now pumps $18.4 billion into the state economy.
That's up from about $16 billion in 2006, according to the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
The latest numbers are for 2008, before the worst of the recession hit. Numbers from last year, modeled for economic impact, won't be available until early 2011, said Chad Prosser, the department's director.
Prosser said he expects this season to show a rebound from 18 months of recession.
Long winters in the northern U.S., pent-up vacation demand and South Carolina's reputation as an economical place to vacation should all help, he said, adding that bookings tend to increase after a bad winter up north.
"You see it very profoundly in the golf market. When they can't golf up north it does increase our numbers," said Prosser, who was a managing partner in a golf club before he came to Columbia.
Last year, even people who had jobs stopped spending.
Now those people are starting to carefully spend again on items such as leisure travel, he said.
During the past year or so, leisure travel has become a bigger part of tourism spending in the state as business travel declined.
"What we're seeing is some resilience in leisure travel," he said. "People want that vacation time and it has become more and more important to all of us."
South Carolina's new tourism campaign proclaims the state is "Made for Vacation" and shows an array of attractions from the mountains to the coast.
A new Web site promoting South Carolina tourism will be up and running next month in a year when tourism revenues should increase. But it's unclear whether tourism spending will reach pre-recession levels.
"I think this will be a rebuilding year where we will make up a good bit of ground we lost through this 18 months of recession," Prosser said.