CHARLESTON -- Despite a shaky economy and the specter of higher gas prices, tourism is expected to continue its solid improvement this year in the Carolinas, where it means almost $39 billion to the two states' economies.
"We're in the midst of a slow-motion recovery, but tourism remains a bright spot," said Brad Dean, president and CEO of the chamber of commerce in Myrtle Beach, the oceanfront town that attracts about 14 million visitors a year.
South Carolina's former parks and tourism director agreed.
"I think we're on a solid track of recovery," said Chad Prosser, who last week left the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism after eight years directing the agency that helps promote the state's $18.4 billion tourism industry.
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"We saw a large boost during the summer season last year and that was a lot of pent-up demand -- a return to travel for people who had maybe cut back a lot during the recession," he added.
Hilton Head Island and Bluffton also are seeing the results of pent-up traveler demand, said Charlie Clark, communications vice president of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. "Our occupancy rates for hotels, homes and villas were up 4.4 percent for 2010," she wrote in an e-mail. "That's a strong number considering our 2009 was relatively flat for occupancy and we didn't face the much deeper dive in occupancy that year that other areas both in and out of South Carolina dealt with."
In the Beaufort area, monthly hotel occupancy rates posted a gain over 2009 for the first time in November, said Bob Moquin, executive director of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce Visitor and Convention Bureau. The rate has increased each month since July, he said.
"Nationally, I've read some projections of a 3 percent growth. I think it's realistic that we'll match that," Moquin said.
In North Carolina, occupancy rates at hotels and motels were up 7 percent statewide through November, compared to the same period in 2009, said Margo Knight Metzger, a spokeswoman for the Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development in the state's Department of Commerce.
Airport arrivals and departures were up 13 percent in October in North Carolina, where tourism brings in $20.2 billion a year.
"Things are really looking up for tourism," she said.
Statewide in South Carolina from last January through November, hotel occupancy was up 6.7 percent -- better than the national figure of 5.7 percent.
In Myrtle Beach, almost 840,000 passengers passed through the airport, and occupancy rates at hotels, motels and condos were up 5 percent last summer to more than 80 percent.
It's a similar story in Charleston, where hotel occupancy was up 9 percent for the year.
Air travel to South Carolina is becoming more affordable as well.
Beginning March 13, Southwest Airlines begins service to both Greenville and Charleston.
Helen Hill, the executive director of the visitors bureau in Charleston, said the area, which attracts about 5 million visitors a year, expects to see a spike in tourists arriving from Houston, Chicago and Baltimore-Washington International, which Southwest will serve with direct flights.
"For folks who have heard about Charleston and thought about coming, suddenly there is a fare that will stimulate them into making that decision," she said.
A check of Expedia.com showed round-trip flights from Baltimore-Washington to Charleston the week before Southwest arrives range from $295 to $867. Southwest offers $79 flights.
While air fare is getting cheaper, gas is expected to get more expensive, although officials don't expect it to affect tourism.
AAA Carolinas has said gas will likely be more than $3 a gallon for most of 2011.
"If you compare the demand for our destination if we are competing with Orlando -- and certainly we do -- higher fuel prices could actually help us," said Taylor Damonte, a tourism researcher at Coastal Carolina University.
If people are planning to drive from the Northeast to Florida, they might end up saving money by making the trip shorter and visiting Carolina beaches, he said.
"In the past, when the price of gas rose above $3 a gallon, it does cause consumers to seek more affordable options," Dean said. "That is an advantage for Myrtle Beach."
He said gas would have to reach $4 a gallon before people would start considering skipping vacations altogether.
City Editor Lisa Allen contributed to this report