Tourism Pineapple Fountain.JPG (copy) (copy)

Visitors grab a picture in front of the pineapple fountain at Charleston's Waterfront Park. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Nearly 7.3 million visitors flocked to the Charleston region last year, or about 6 percent more than 2017, pushing the total economic impact of tourism past a record $8 billion, a new report shows.

Other metrics, such as the number of hotel room nights sold, also reached new heights in 2018, while attraction attendance and hotel occupancy declined for the first time in several years, according to figures from the College of Charleston. 

The seemingly conflicting figures were attributed to changes in supply and demand, said Daniel Guttentag, the director of the college's Office of Tourism Analysis, which compiles the annual report. 

"Charleston has more visitors, but there's also more competition for those visitors, whether it be places to eat, places to sleep or things to do," Guttentag said Friday. 

Area attractions saw about 2.5 million visitors in 2018, down about 5 percent from the previous year, according to the report.  

The College of Charleston's estimate bases that figure on attendance at 17 primary draws. So a small decline doesn't necessarily means visitors aren't spending money on tours and attractions — spending in that category was up last year by about $51 per person per trip — but it could indicate that they're exploring a wider variety of activities. 

Some tourists may be opting for brewery tours over plantation visits, for instance, and others could be booking activities through new online platforms like Airbnb Experiences, a collection of locally run tours, classes and other offerings that launched in South Carolina last year. 

The number of lodging options also have continued to increase, with the room inventory surpassing 17,400 rooms in the region by the end of 2018, with the peninsula accounting for more than 4,500 of those.

Another 7,610 units were available last year through vacation and short-term rentals. 

Occupancy down, but more nights sold than ever at Charleston hotels last year

Consequently, hotel room revenue for the year was down from the 2017 by almost 5 percent, and average occupancy rate dipped slightly to about 75 percent. That's unusual for the Charleston area, which has seen steady annual increases in both figures since at least 2013.  

But Charleston's hotel indicators still well outpace national figures. The U.S. occupancy averaged around 66 percent last year. 

Weather also influenced the 2018 numbers. Both attraction attendance and hotel occupancy were hurt by Hurricane Florence, which prompted a state-ordered evacuation of the area in mid-September.

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Earlier this year, Duane Parrish, the director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism said that, although the storm didn't cause much physical damage in South Carolina, it resulted in the greatest loss of tourism spending in the last four years, about $117 million. 

Given all those factors, Guttentag said, the dips in Charleston's hotel figures read as "barely more than a rounding error." 

Other aspects of the report show little change from last year. All of the top 10 origin states for visitors were the same as they were in 2017, except for Tennessee and Illinois, which took the place of California and Maryland. The greatest number of visitors came from North Carolina and Florida. 

The report also notes that about 10 percent of visitors to Charleston live outside of the U.S., with most coming from Canada or the United Kingdom. 

Though the total number of visitors and overall economic impact broke records in 2018, both showed more modest growth — about 6 and 10 percent, respectively — compared to the headier growth seen in 2017.

That was largely due to a change in how the estimates are calculated, Guttentag said. For the first time, the 2017 report included guests who booked short-term rentals, making the gains from that year seem particularly high.

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.