Tourism officials say the season is looking brighter

Beachgoers get an early start on the Memorial Day weekend on Thursday afternoon at Hilton Head's Coligny Beach Park.
Beachgoers get an early start on the Memorial Day weekend on Thursday afternoon at Hilton Head's Coligny Beach Park. Jay Karr/ The Island Packet
  • More visitors paying higher rental rates are expected in Beaufort County this weekend -- and some will get a break on gas costs.
  • Local tourism officials report that vacation rental occupancy and rates have increased from this time last year, and they're viewing bookings for the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial kickoff to tourist season, as a good sign for summer business.

    Some hotels and rental companies are trying to entice those vacationers with free gas, according to Charlie Clark, vice president of communications for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

    Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, Beach Properties of Hilton Head, ResortQuest and Holiday Inn Oceanfront are among the businesses offering $50 to $100 in gas cards or credits for seven-night stays, Clark said.

    Clark said gas prices haven't typically had an impact on island tourism.

    "Traveling by car is still economical ... and 85 percent of our visitors come by automobile," she said.

    Even with higher gas prices, occupancy and rate figures have risen.

    From January through April, occupancy in Hilton Head Island hotels, rental homes and villas rose 1.3 percent over the same time last year, according to Clark. And last month, occupancy rates jumped 6.3 percent when compared to April 2010.

    Since January, the average daily rate was up more than 6 percent over the same period last year, Clark said.

    Mike Alsko, general manager of ResortQuest, said he expects 85 percent of about 400 short-term rentals to be filled during the holiday weekend. With average rates up 14 percent, it's "an indication that the consumer is not as price-sensitive as last year," he said.

    The island's hotels are about "at capacity," Clark said.

    Holiday Inn Oceanfront is nearly sold out, and front desk clerk Jonathan Bradley expected to be fully booked by the weekend.

    Despite higher gas prices and airfares, more people are expected to travel Memorial Day weekend than since 2007, according to AAA's national travel survey. They'll be keeping an eye on their money, though. The AAA survey showed the average traveling family plans to spend $692 during the weekend, down 14 percent from last year's $809.

    However, Christine Saenger, owner of Tropical Styles in Coligny Plaza on Hilton Head, said foot traffic and sales at her shop have increased this year. Saenger, who also manages the Little Venice restaurant at Shelter Cove, said she's noticed customers buying more than browsing.

    "People are not being as wary as they have been," she said.

    The Associated Press and staff writer Josh McCann contributed to this report.