After four lean years during the Great Recession, the historic Heyward House in Bluffton is now attracting visitors in greater numbers.
That increase reflects a growing interest in historical travel among area vacationers, according to John Salazar, director of the Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Institute and a professor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
From January to August, 6,366 people have toured the house, according to data provided by Maureen Richards, the site's executive director. That's a 65 percent increase from the year-to-date total last year, she said.
The type of visitor is changing as well, Richards said.
In recent months, younger groups from out of town and more families have visited the house, she said. In August, 87 percent of those visitors were from out of town, up 7 percent from 2012.
That means Bluffton is on the travel map as a historic travel destination, Salazar said.
"Like Orlando is known for theme parks, Bluffton's destination context is moving toward history and Old Town," he said.
That follows a growing national trend.
Nationally, history and culture was the focus of more than a quarter of leisure travelers last year, according to U.S. Travel.org, a tourism trade association.
Salazar's tourism institute uses a virtual guidebook to survey visitors. The guestbook is a touch screen tablet that the institute sets up at tourist spots in the area. Visitors using the tablet deemed "historic interests" the most important reason to visit Bluffton.
From February 2012 to February 2013, 76 percent of the survey's 192 respondents said "historic interests" were either important or somewhat important to their visit.
Along with the Heyward House, they cited the Church of the Cross and Old Town Bluffton as historic must-sees.
At the Heyward House, Richards offers monthly events to tap into that market.
On Thursday, for example, the house was packed with more than 60 people as historian Joseph McGill lectured about his project involving antebellum slave dwellings. A former slave cabin on the Heyward House grounds was his second stop in 2010. McGill has slept in such dwellings in a dozen states over the past three years.
While a growing interest in history is bringing more visitors to the site, the recovering economy is a factor as well, Richards said.
In 2010, in the midst of the downturn, the house had slightly more than 5,000 visitors, more than a thousand less than have come through already this year.
"Travelers are looking for a learning experience and something authentically American," said Susan Thomas, senior vice president of the visitor and convention bureau at the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
"People want something they can touch. This is tangible history."
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.
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