Hilton Head Island's peak tourism season is off to a solid start with sold-out hotels, high occupancy rates at rentals and busy beaches.
The economy's continuing recovery, lower-than-expected gas prices and a sunny weather forecast have meant the Memorial Day holiday, the official start of the island's tourist season, is raising expectations among tourism leaders for the summer.
"There has been a surge of last-minute guests, which gives us confidence," Gail Wargo, director of sales and marketing at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa, said Friday of the Memorial Day weekend.
"If we're not sold out, we'll be very close," she said of the newly renovated resort.
Occupancy rates for the more than 200 rental homes and condos managed by Resort Rentals of Hilton Head Island are at about 90 percent for the long weekend, said Bill Haley, the company's vice president of marketing.
"It's a mix of the economy rebounding and people out there who didn't take a vacation last year or the year before saying now is the time to do it," Haley added.
Most of those visitors are staying the week, not just the long weekend, taking advantage of lower rates before they rise in about three weeks, Haley said.
The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce predicts a 90 percent occupancy rate for the weekend for all of the area's resorts, rentals and timeshares.
Year to date through April, the area's rental occupancy is up 7 percent from last year, said Charlie Clark, chamber spokeswoman.
About 444,000 South Carolinians and 897,000 North Carolinians are expected to be on the road during the vacation weekend, according to AAA Carolinas. That's an increase of about 2 percent in holiday drivers from last year.
And travelers in South Carolina are enjoying the lowest gas prices in the country. AAA says the state's average gas price is $3.24 a gallon, 10 cents per gallon lower than a year ago.
"So we're off to a good start for the 2013 season," Clark said.
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