Hilton Head Island beaches should be brimming with vacationers this weekend for summer's last hurrah.
AAA Carolinas predicts more people will travel to South Carolina this Labor Day weekend compared to last year, despite the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and another storm brewing in the Atlantic.
About 424,000 motorists -- 1 percent more than last year -- were expected to travel through the state Friday through Monday, according to AAA. Lower gas prices, higher air fares and the economy are contributing to the increased traffic, according to the travel club.
Hurricane Irene, which swept past the coast last week, had little impact on area tourism.
Resorts and hotels on Hilton Head fielded phone calls from concerned vacationers while the storm was off the coast, but few canceled reservations.
There were as many, or slightly more, advance reservations this year as last for Labor Day, according to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. Most hotels and resorts on the island were sold out or at 90 percent occupancy or more for the weekend, according to chamber figures.
Visitor numbers, spending rise
Hotels, resorts, and home and villa rental companies in Beaufort County did slightly more business this summer than in 2010, even with a boost last year from the Gulf oil spill that diverted some travelers to the Lowcountry.
Overall, tourism for the year was up more than 1 percent over last year as of July 31, according V-Trip, which tracks hotel and rental occupancy. Year to date through July, occupancy was about the same as last year for the Beaufort area, according to Smith Travel Research Inc.
Visitors have also been willing to pay more for a room. The average daily room rate increased 5.4 percent compared to last year for the Hilton Head-Bluffton area and 9.6 percent for the Beaufort area, according to area travel numbers.
"It's a telling indicator on the overall health of our tourism industry," said Charlie Clark, Hilton Head chamber vice president of communications.
Beaufort-area revenue rose about $300,000 year-to-date through this July, according to Smith Travel Research.
"The visitor count is returning to pre-recession levels, and there's been less of a discount that was needed to get people to book," said Tom Ridgway, owner of Hilton Head Rentals & Golf. "This week, we're close to 95 percent occupancy for our 250 homes and villas, and advanced reservations are up."
Ridgway said visitors have grown tired of "staycations" and are now venturing farther from home.
"They feel a little more confident in their spending because they've survived layoffs and downsizings," he said. "At the beginning of the summer, consumer confidence was rising. But with the violent swings in the stock market and global economy, we hope we don't see a double-dip recession. If we can muddle through this, we can anticipate a better (tourism) environment ... and see the trend continue for 2012."
Ellen Lam, marketing manager for the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa -- which is booked for the weekend -- had similar comments.
The resort expects to be ahead of pace through the end of this year, and numbers look good for 2012, she said.
Beaufort gears up
In Beaufort, restaurants and hotels are gearing up for their traditional tourism uptick as the weather cools and snowbirds migrate south.
Plums Restaurant and Saltus River Grill posted strong numbers for June and July and expect the same for August, said Chip Dinkins, director of operations for the company that owns the restaurants.
"It's been a good summer for us," Dinkins said. "We saw a dip in the last two weeks -- our traditional dip -- with people going back to school and families traveling less. Labor Day will be a nice shot in the arm as we gear up for October, which heralds the return of our tourist season."
The Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce says a new marketing campaign tied to the city's tricentennial is working.
"Numbers have been going gangbusters," said Bob Moquin, executive director of the chamber's tourism division.
Since June 20, the chamber has received more than 22,000 unique visits to a dedicated website promoting the 300th anniversary, and 11,459 signed up for a two-night giveaway sweepstakes sponsored by the Beaufort, Port Royal & the Sea Islands Visitor & Convention Bureau.
"To us that indicates people are seriously looking at coming here," Moquin said.
Follow staff writer Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.
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