July 4 business not expected to boom at beaches

The Town of Hilton Head Island renourished 6 miles of beach from September through February at a cost of $16.6 million. It was paid for with money generated by taxes on overnight lodging. Local tourism officials say the sandier beaches won't likely draw more tourists this year, but it could keep them coming back.
The Town of Hilton Head Island renourished 6 miles of beach from September through February at a cost of $16.6 million. It was paid for with money generated by taxes on overnight lodging. Local tourism officials say the sandier beaches won't likely draw more tourists this year, but it could keep them coming back.

COLUMBIA -- As the biggest tourist holiday approaches this week with July Fourth, businesses along the S.C. coast are calling the summer season not bad -- just not great.

After seeing visitors reach post-9-11 highs in recent seasons, business appears to be leveling off with higher gas prices and fewer new attractions.

"I don't think we look to see a huge increase, but we do look to do a little better," said Pat Dowling, spokesman for Myrtle Beach's Burroughs & Chapin Co., which runs attractions including Broadway at the Beach shopping complex and the NASCAR SpeedPark. "Not a banner year, but a good year."

State tourism officials said concerns about the housing market along with more entertainment choices near home might be keeping a few folks away from the coast this season.

"If it is wasn't for gas prices and the economy, we might be having a slightly better summer," said Marion Edmonds, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

The Grand Strand is struggling with the closing of the Myrtle Beach Pavilion.

The Hilton Head Island-area is trying to reach out to visitors after more than a year of widening to its main road.

Charleston is banking on the buzz from the Spoleto arts festival.

Beaufort is working through a recent monthlong closure of a bridge to its main beachfront islands.

Plus, bookings also might be hurt slightly because some vacationers looking for a bargain are waiting to make reservations just before their trips start.

"It's just changing times, but the phones are still ringing, and the bodies are still showing up," said Vince Eck, president of the Low Country Property Manage-ment Association in Hilton Head.

Occupancy rates and visitor numbers in the Hilton Head region were down slightly through May compared to the year before.

Overall, lodging occupancy for Horry County likely will increase by about 2 percent from the 80 percent average last summer, according to Coastal Carolina University's Center for Economic and Community Development. That's not a lot considering the hundreds of new rooms to fill.

"(The summer won't be a) disappointment, but it could be more," said Gary Loftus, a former hotel operator who heads the center.

In Charleston, the arrival of low-fare carrier AirTran makes getting to the city and its nearby beaches less expensive.

"It will be at least as good as last summer," said Perrin Lawson, deputy director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We have every reason right now to think things will go well."

Hilton Head Island tourism officials hope that vacationers frus-trated by last year's construction work -- the widening of U.S. 278 and a $16 million beach renourishment -- will see the benefits and keep coming back.

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce has rolled out its first new major campaign in 15 years, a nearly $500,000 effort that has yielded more inquiries from those interested in vacationing on the island.

Last year, the chamber had about 72,000 inquires all year. This year, that number was 45,000 just through May, the chamber said.

The new campaign uses documentary-style photography, showing people in action on and around the island. The chamber also broadened the marketing to the surrounding area and came up with slogans like "Come away with me," for Hilton Head; "Hide away in beauty," for Daufuskie Island; and "Heritage to discover," for old town Bluffton.

Island resorts are reporting summer occupancy rates near 90 percent, down a little from a very good 2006.

Beaufort officials say they also have gotten a boost from recent increased marketing campaigns touting the area as a year-round destination.

"The beginning of this year was probably the best a lot of my (restaurant-owner) friends have had," said Nick Borreggine, who owns the downtown restaurant Panini's. "In January, February, March and April, everybody was thrilled."

Business dropped off downtown this year after the J.E. McTeer Bridge was damaged in a barge accident in April. Repairs curbed tourists coming into town from Fripp Island.

A large portion of marketing efforts are concentrated in cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte -- places that are a reasonable driving distance from Beaufort. But because most of the area's tourists drive to Beaufort County, gas prices are a concern.

"I think the gas prices are more a psychological detriment than anything else," said Jim Wescott, executive director of the Lowcountry & Resort Islands Tourism Commission. "The cost of an extra tank of gas is only $50 probably, (which is small) compared to the cost of lodging, attractions and meals. The problem is we're faced on every street corner with gigantic signs showing gas prices."

Some Grand Strand experts speculate the higher prices could benefit the tourism business because it will be a closer option for some than Florida's beaches.

Others predict that vacationers in the Grand Strand's feeder markets might stick closer to home, which would mean a trip to Virginia Beach, Va., Ocean City, Md., or the Jersey shore instead of Myrtle Beach.

About 61 percent of travelers surveyed by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce in May said gas prices were impacting their travel plans -- a drastic jump from 35 percent a year ago. More than 90 percent of visitors to the Grand Strand drive there.

Myrtle Beach could get a bump when the 140-acre Hard Rock Park opens next spring. Until then, the most notable new offering is the Pavilion Nostalgia Park, a collection of rides from the shuttered amusement park that is expected to open this week at Broadway at the Beach.