Perhaps the most important words spoken at the Governors Conference on Travel and Tourism last week in Charleston came from the new governor.
"You have a governor who gets it," Nikki Haley told a gathering of about 500 leaders in the state's top industry.
All South Carolina leaders must "get" the importance of tourism to local economies, state tax revenue and jobs. They must "get" that tourism produces residents whose demands for accountants, lawyers, doctors, professors, nurses, teachers, architects, Realtors, pastors -- the list goes on -- fuel the intellectual capital the state needs.
Haley specifically said she gets the importance of boosting tourism through positive attitudes, good service, community pride and appreciation for new business. She vowed to be an ambassador. Her tourism policy will involve each county, she said, and target repeat visitors, revamped welcome centers, and protection of promotion dollars.
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She reiterated her support for the Heritage PGA Tour event on Hilton Head Island, even vowing to "make sure" it gets a title sponsor so it can continue beyond this year's event April 18-24 in Sea Pines.
Her attitude is right, even if the fate of the tournament rests with decisions beyond our control.
One thing Haley is emphatic about: the Heritage should not be sponsored by the government.
She ruffled feathers in Myrtle Beach area by denouncing its local, 1-percent sales tax that goes to the chamber of commerce for tourism promotion. Haley opposes such taxes, arguing for a statewide approach that is not "piecemeal."
That stance should also grab attention in Beaufort County, where tourism leaders are looking everywhere for more marketing dollars. A new sales tax would not suit the governor. We must take full advantage of each tax dollar already being collected on prepared food and overnight lodging. The state "bed tax" law should not be altered, as some are pushing, to siphon money away from tourism and the arts to fund local government expenses.
Even as everyone is clamoring for more marketing dollars, Duane Parrish of Charleston, the new director of the state's tourism agency, is bullish on the $18.4 billion tourism industry. He foresees growth of perhaps 10 percent over the next two years, starting this spring.
"I think the spring could bring, I cautiously say, some record numbers due to the confluence of an improving economy, a nice spring after a harsh winter and fantastic travel bargains," Parrish said at the conference.
He was adamant that the state's welcome centers should be open every day, saying a locked door sends the wrong signal to travelers. Haley said the welcome centers will be studied in detail, with some perhaps being shuttered so that others can survive and expand.
Amid the optimism, we must be realistic.
Realism demands that local tourism and hospitality businesses must do more to promote themselves. Excellent service and a quality product are the best advertisement.
Realism demands that Beaufort County's greatest calling card -- its natural beauty -- be protected. Now is not the time to cut development standards, sacrifice trees and dump pollution into Calibogue Sound.
Now more than ever, Beaufort County must set itself apart from the madding world tourists want to escape.
Hilton Head needs to figure out where its next generation of tourism capital investment will come from. Can it accommodate, attract and welcome new business -- from mom-and-pop stores to the eventual replacement of aging oceanfront resorts?
It's promising to hear the new governor say she "gets it," and the new state tourism director to say he's optimistic.
But there's plenty of work to be done, and not a moment to lose.