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Luke Hassman (left) and Pierre Smalls board up windows at Aaron's Deli on Meeting Street on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, in Charleston as Hurricane Dorian threatens the coast. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Hurricanes are never good for business, but, much like the storm itself, Hurricane Dorian's hit to Charleston's tourism industry could have been much worse.

According to a College of Charleston analysis completed Wednesday, the region's visitor industry saw an estimated $58.6 million loss due to Dorian, which buffeted the South Carolina coastline with rain and hurricane-force winds last week and prompted a state-ordered evacuation on the coast. 

Though Dorian did more physical damage in the Charleston area, Hurricane Florence, which threatened to make landfall in the Lowcountry last September, dealt a much heavier blow to the region's tourism industry — about $111.3 million, according to figures from the college's Office of Tourism Analysis. 

The estimates combine hotel occupancy data during the days affected by severe weather and average estimates of visitor spending per day. 

The difference between the Dorian and Florence losses is thanks, in part, to timing, said the office's director, Daniel Guttentag. 

"The week after Labor Day is always somewhat soft," he said.

Visitors vacationing for the long weekend tend to leave by Monday, and families are just getting into the swing of a new school year. 

Since occupancy levels are already dampened, he said, the difference wasn't as substantial between an average day and one during the evacuation order, which took effect in all of South Carolina's coastal counties noon Monday and lasted through part of Friday. 

Hotel data from last week showed significant drops on Monday and Tuesday, Guttentag said. Both days were below 40 percent, with Tuesday's figures showing the lowest dip. 

But the numbers started to rebound by Wednesday, before the storm had even reached the state's southern coast. Occupancy at area hotels was above 40 percent for the rest of the week and remained relatively steady into the weekend. 

That rapid rebound is a marked difference from last year, when occupancy rates before and after Florence was expected to hit held below 40 percent for seven days straight. 

Severe weather can be a significant setback for hospitality and tourism-related businesses, even when a storm doesn't cause much physical damage. Unlike manufacturers or some service providers, it’s more difficult to make up for lost time.

Major attractions, such as Patriots Point, the S.C. Aquarium and the area's three National Park Service sites — Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie and the Charles Pinckney Historic Site — shut down Tuesday and remained closed through at least Friday.  

Though none of the historic vessels or airplanes at Patriots Point were damaged in the storm, the museum closed Tuesday and remained closed for seven days, reopening the following Tuesday. During that same period last year, spokesman Chris Hauff said the museum sold almost 3,500 tickets for about $70,000.  

“Once you don’t sell that ticket, that’s it,” Helen Hill, the CEO at Explore Charleston, said. “You don’t get any of that back.”

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After Hurricane Dorian passed the day before, store manager Jonathan Slocum works to get the King Street Jos. A. Bank store back to normal on Friday, September 6, 2019. Matthew Fortner/Staff

Charleston, as well as destinations like Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, try to bring visitors back in as soon as possible when a storm, like Dorian or Florence, prompts evacuations but doesn't cause lasting damage. 

Hurricane Wire is a pop-up newsletter during hurricane season that delivers anyone who lives on the East Coast all the information they need to know as storms brew in the Atlantic and beyond.


Statewide, the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism has adopted the slogan "the coast is clear" for just those occasions, to communicate that, while the threat was real, the beaches are back open for business. 

"Often, the bigger culprit with these kinds of things is that lingering perception," Winslow Hastie, the president of the Historic Charleston Foundation, said of what's become an annual process in Charleston of battening down the hatches for hurricanes. 

Though the foundation's properties were otherwise unharmed, what was likely a 19th-century magnolia tree toppled at the Aiken-Rhett House museum on Elizabeth Street. A tree limb clipped the roof of the carriage house on its way down, leaving a pretty big hole. The damage was relatively minimal, Hastie said, but any repairs to the historic houses can be complicated and costly. 

Historic Charleston, which oversees four buildings, including two house museums, is "like a well-oiled machine" by now when it comes to prepping the properties for a possible storm, Hastie said.

Dorian's arrival marked the fifth consecutive year that South Carolina's tourism industry suffered a blow from hurricanes and flooding. Before Dorian, storms in the four years prior caused a combined loss of $321 million in director visitor spending, according to PRT. 

One small benefit of having these severe weather events strike several years in a row is that visitor bureaus, hotels and attractions are well practiced in the process, Guttentag said.

"You can't eliminate the impacts; they're inevitable," he said. "But the industry is continuing to find ways to minimize those impacts as much as possible and let visitors know that, despite whatever they saw, we’re back to normal here."

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.

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