Tourism brings $3.22 billion to Charleston economy

A horse and carriage tour stops at the Four Corners of Law in Downtown Charleston in 2011. Tourism continued to increase in 2011. File/ Leroy Burnell/Staff

Nearly 4.5 million tourists flocked to Charleston in 2011, opening their wallets in hotels, restaurants and attractions for a $3.22 billion impact.

That’s what the chief operating officer of Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau told a gathering of business leaders and government officials Monday during Congressman Tim Scott’s “Revitalizing America” conference at the College of Charleston.

“Tourism is big business in Charleston,” Laurie Lynn Smith of the CVB said.

While many areas are still trying to come back from the losses of 2007 and 2008, Smith said Charleston continues to reap the rewards of its hospitality, culture, history, ambiance and great food.

For the past year, Charleston held the distinction of being voted the No. 1 tourist city in America by the readers of Conde Nast travel magazine,

Hotels reported 70 percent occupancy in 2011, up 1 percent from 2010, and the average room night costs about $117 last year, up $2 over the previous year, Smith said. That translated into an additional $200 million year over year for the Charleston metropolitan economy, she added.

The average visitor to Charleston spent $183 a day in 2010. That number rose to $194 a day in 2011.

The CVB’s goal is not so much to bring in more visitors but to attract those who stay longer and spend more, Smith said. To do that, it aims to establish a greater presence in high-population centers such as the Northeast.

Helping to lure low-cost carrier JetBlue Airways, which recently announced non-stop flights to New York and Boston starting Feb. 28, is just one of the ways the CVB is putting Charleston’s name in front of visitors.

The hospitality agency plans to spend at least half a million dollars promoting Charleston in the Northeast corridor, where both of the JetBlue destinations offer access for international travelers to connect to flights to Charleston.

“International travelers travel longer and spend more,” Smith said.

The CVB also helped land Southwest Airlines in Charleston two years ago with a similar package to help lower airfare costs and tap markets such as Chicago, Nashville, Baltimore and Houston with direct, low-cost flights.

“In the first week that Southwest started service, rental car companies ran out of cars,” Smith said of the Southwest effect.

Passenger service is now up 30 percent year over year at Charleston International Airport.

Charleston’s drive-to market includes cities within four to eight hours, including Richmond, Charlotte, Knoxville, Atlanta and Orlando, and Charleston will continue to market itself in those tourist-rich areas, Smith said.

It targets niche markets such as golfers and families, led by Baby Boomer grandparents, who have more disposable income to travel with their offspring.

Charleston’s charm is what attracts tourists to visit the Holy City, she said.

“History and civility are still alive,” Smith added.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or