Record tourism year brings millions of visitors, dollars to county

A tour group with Sea Island Carriage Co. passes by the Beaufort Arsenal on Craven Street in Beaufort.
A tour group with Sea Island Carriage Co. passes by the Beaufort Arsenal on Craven Street in Beaufort. Delayna Earley

New data show that Beaufort County's summer tourism season -- which officially comes to a close on Labor Day -- is likely another record year.

On average, drivers made about 1,000 more trips onto and off Hilton Head Island every day this summer than last year, according to S.C. Department of Transportation data. That equated to more than 58,000 trips onto and off the island on a typical day.

New information from the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce is also indicating a record year for tourism. More than 1.65 million visitors have come to Hilton Head Island so far this year. Chamber leaders expect another million visitors before the end of the year, which would just barely eclipse last year's record-breaking number of visitors.

The chambers analyzes visitor and hotel data collected by the University of South Carolina Beaufort and Smith Travel Research, said Charlie Clark, spokeswoman for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

Hotel occupancy rates are also up around the county.

In northern Beaufort County, hotels are reporting a 9 percent increase this year over last, said Robb Wells, tourism director for the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"We feel like the culmination of a lot of great interest in the area is starting to mature," he said of the chamber's marketing efforts.

That's led to a 13 percent increase in hotel revenue in 2015 -- now over $14.1 million for the year so far, he said.

"The caveat is these are just participating hotels in Beaufort. Revenue is much higher than that, but this is what is able to be tracked," he added.

There's a similar increase in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island where hotel occupancy rates are up almost 6 percent compared to last year, Clark said. For hotels, that's $72.6 million in 2015 through July.

But that number doesn't include the many rental homes and villas that comprise the majority of the island's tourism market, Clark said. Data for this sector won't be available until later this year, she said.

An improving economy, lower gas prices and more families attending graduations at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island are all factors bringing in new visitors, Wells said.

Also helping are new low-cost Allegiant Air flights between Savannah and three Ohio cities that began this spring, Clark said.

"It's rewarding to see such a strong year for tourism following last year's record-breaking number of visitors," said Bill Miles, president of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. "It's also a testament to the capital reinvestment that's happening on the island and on the mainland. Travel is a competitive industry. Reinvestment in the island and strong marketing go hand-in-hand to keep tourism relevant and strong."

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