Myrtle Beach, S.C., Tourism Sector Hopes to Cash In on Increased Summer Travel

By Dawn Bryant, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

May 19--Summer travel nationwide is expected to tick up a bit this year, and the Grand Strand aims to cash in on the trend.

The beach could return to between 3.5 percent and 5 percent growth this season after a string of summers with declines or small increases.

That expected jump is better than the forecasted 3.2 percent upturn nationally for leisure travel during June, July and August, a prediction released Tuesday by the Travel Industry Association of America.

Travelers nationally are expected to take more than 334 million trips at least 50 miles from home one-way during those three months. About 73 percent of them plan to hit a beach or lake, according to TIA.

Pre-season signs have kept locals optimistic that growth will return this summer.

"Based on what we've seen so far, it leads you to believe it could be one of the better summers since the mid-1990s," said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. The Grand Strand experienced explosive economic growth during the mid- to late-1990s, along with the rest of the nation.

The chamber budgeted 3.5 percent growth. It is hoping for 4 percent.

The economy is picking up, war concerns aren't as new as last year and folks are paying more for a place to stay, said Gary Loftus, director of Coastal Carolina University's Coastal Federal Center for Economic and Community Development.

"They just want to get away," said Loftus, who predicts 5 percent growth.

Locals are relying on that pent-up demand and hoping nice weather will continue to lure visitors.

"They are certainly visiting our parks that are open," said Pat Dowling, spokesman for Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc., owner of several area attractions.

Leaders are keeping an eye on gas prices -- which is averaging more than $2 a gallon for regular grade nationally for the first time -- though some experts say the worst may be over. A growing uneasiness about affordability of travel also has leaders on watch. Travel prices nationally have increased 7 percent since December, according to TIA.

Travelers likely will spend more this summer than last but stay fewer days, TIA's survey said. On their longest summer trip, they'll spend about $1,101 on average, up 4.4 percent from last year, and stay about 7.6 nights.

That bodes well for the Grand Strand, which relies on summer beachgoers to keep its $5 billion tourism industry going. About 12.7 million people visit the Grand Strand each year.

More than 90 percent of them drive here. Auto travel nation ally is predicted to increase by 3 percent, despite higher gas prices.

Leisure travelers are expected to help fuel a 5 percent increase in air travel. Myrtle Beach International Airport, which has had a 34.6 percent increase in traffic through April this year, could see a 10 percent jump this summer, said airports director Bob Kemp.

"We expect travel to be very, very strong," he said.

Pre-season signs that have kept locals optimistic:

--Visitors have paid more for a place to stay than they did last year. Average daily rates were higher during Easter weekend and the recent Carolina Harley-Davidson Dealers Association Myrtle Beach Rally. That means hotels aren't having to discount as much as last year to get guests.

--Business so far this calendar year jumped over last year.

Horry County's accommodations tax collections in January increased 24.4 percent over the same month in 2003. February's inched up by 5.9 percent.

--Statewide, hotel occupancy during January through March increased 5.5 percent compared to the same period in 2003, according to Smith Travel Research. Hotels are charging more for their rooms, with revenue per available room up by 7.4 percent during January through March.

"Everybody thinks it is going to be a strong year," said Stephen Greene, communications vice president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "The signs are real positive."

To see more of The Sun News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.MyrtleBeachOnline.com

(c) 2004, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. HDI,



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