Hurricane Dorian cost South Carolina destinations about $117 million in visitor spending, tying it with Hurricane Florence for the state's largest storm-induced loss of visitor dollars in the last five years.
Hurricanes and flooding have set South Carolina's tourism industry back by about $438 million in that time, according to estimates from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
In February, department director Duane Parrish told tourism leaders that, of the four major weather events that had occurred over the previous four years, Florence took the largest bite out of the industry.
That was despite the fact that the storm didn't hit South Carolina directly, as earlier forecasts had predicted. But a mandatory evacuation order cleared the coastline for nearly a week.
Now, new loss estimates released this week by the state indicate that Dorian, which buffeted parts of South Carolina with heavy rain and wind when it skirted the coastline in early September, set destinations back by about the same amount.
All of the State Park Service sites along the coast were evacuated the week of the storm, canceling camping and cabin reservations and dampening the park system's admissions revenue. The parks were able to reopen within about a week after the storm came through, said Director Paul McCormack.
A team of a few dozen parks employees from other parts of the state came to the coastal locations with chippers and chainsaws to speed up the post-Dorian cleanup process, McCormack said. None of the parks sustained significant damage.
The park reopenings were staggered, moving south along the coast. Myrtle Beach State Park opened first, followed by Huntington Beach State Park between Murrells Inlet and Pawleys Island.
Areas that had the densest trees — like the Live Oak Campground at Edisto Beach — required the most cleanup, McCormack said. All of the parks lost power, but it took the longest to restore at Charles Towne Landing, a historic site just off Old Towne Road in West Ashley.
Tens of thousands of households in the state lost power, too, and more than 500 trees came down in the Charleston metro area alone.
Though Dorian did more physical damage in the Charleston area, the College of Charleston's region-specific estimate of tourism losses was much higher for Florence. The college projected a $58.6 million loss due to Dorian, compared to a more than $111 million negative impact from Florence.
That discrepancy was largely due to timing, said Daniel Guttentag, director of the college's Office of Tourism Analysis, which collects hotel figures and average visitor spending estimates to make its projections. The storm came through several days after Labor Day, which is typically a slower week for tourism.
Hotel occupancy also reached normal levels more quickly this year than during and after Florence. The number of occupied rooms in the area had significantly dropped early in the week, when an evacuation order took effect for Dorian, but rates started to rebound by Wednesday before the storm had even reached the state's coastline.
State tourism officials and local visitors bureaus try to bring visitors back into coastal areas as soon as possible when a storm, like Dorian or Florence, doesn’t cause lasting damage.
For the past few years, the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism has responded right after a storm with its "Coast is Clear" initiative. Social media posts including the phrase and featuring videos on the waterfront are meant to communicate to visitors — particularly those who don't leave near the coast — that the beaches are back open for business.
"We've learned that people who do not live near the coast are not necessarily familiar with what happens during a hurricane," said Parrish, the agency's director. "If they’re here they leave; if they had a reservation, they cancel it."
This year, an additional $1 million was allocated to potentially offset some of the losses seen during the last several fall seasons. The campaign, which is called “Fall in SC – A Cooler Kind of Summer," specifically promotes the state's coastal destinations, since those are the markets consistently affected by hurricanes and flooding.
One commercial shows a close-up shot of a family carving a pumpkin. The frame then pulls back to show that they're on a South Carolina beach.
Parrish said the campaign had been going well before Dorian, and business seemed to rebound within a couple weeks after the storm.
He's hoping to get the $1 million in funding for fall promotions again this year and possibly make the marketing campaign an annual occurrence.
The visitor industry is a powerhouse for South Carolina, pumping billions of dollars through the state every year. According to the most recent estimates, which reflected visitor spending in 2017, the annual economic impact of tourism in the state is $22.6 billion.
That was $1.4 billion more than the year before, marking the sixth consecutive year that the impact from tourism has increased.