This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 print edition of GSA Business Report
By Teri Errico Griffis and Molly Hulsey
South Carolina visitors haven’t changed, but what they’re searching for in a vacation has changed since the pandemic started.
Outdoor recreation is essential for the leisure traveler, and they’re looking to the South with year-round activities, said Duane Parrish, director of S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
Since state parks were reopened in May 2020, travelers have visited in record numbers. State park revenue for 2021 increased 47% from last year and 73.7% over 2019. Campground occupancy increased 17.1% year-over-year while cabin occupancy was up 17.5% from 2020, according to the PRT.
“When people come and travel to state parks … they’re not just going to state parks, they’re going out into the local communities. They’re buying gas at the convenience stores. They’re going to the grocery store. They’re going to cultural events and seeking out opportunities in the region that they’re in,” said Joy Raintree, regional chief of the S.C. State Park Service’s Sandhill Region.
Raintree is heading up efforts with Open Space Institute and Nature Conservancy to design one of five new South Carolina parks: the Black River State Park, a 70-mile water trail across Williamsburg and Georgetown counties. S.C. Parks plans to open access points along the river later this year.
Additional properties under development include tracts acquired by the state in a settlement with Dominion Energy. There are 27 acres at Pine Island on Lake Murray, 190 acres at North Augusta’s Misty Lake and 2,600 acres at the former Ramsey Grove Plantation along the Black River.
“That’s where we’ve benefited as a state,” Parrish said. “You think about all the lakes and rivers we have, beaches, boating, fishing. State parks, Congaree National Park. Hiking is a big thing with Palmetto Trail running through the state, and camping and golf. … So we’re sitting well; we’re in a good position for 2022 as well.”
Drive markets and market drivers
“In the beginning of the pandemic, we were down to just the drive market, because, if you remember, the airlines were down 95% at one time,” Parrish said. “So you look back at 2020, our portion of air traffic was almost non-existent after the pandemic started. That came back strong in 2021, but more toward the latter half of the year.”
For 2021, S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism reported a 32.8% increase in statewide hotel occupancy compared to 2020, and a decrease of 5.3% compared to 2019 — a record year for state tourism. Hotel revenue per available room was 4% higher than 2019 and 75% higher than 2020.
“These metrics tell a great story of South Carolina’s tourism recovery in 2021,” Parrish said. “They tell us that we have regained much of the economic ground that was lost in the first year of the pandemic, but they also tell us that we still have work to do. They tell us that we all must continue our efforts to achieve a full economic recovery to make our state’s tourism industry whole again.”
In the first six months of 2021, South Carolina recovered quicker than nearby states, with greater gains in hotel occupancy compared to North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Parrish attributed the success to several factors, including to a $20 million investment from the state to support SCPRT marketing that drove nearly $1 billion in hotel revenue, the agency said. Additionally, Parrish gave credit to South Carolina’s travel experiences, the state’s ability to adapt to the ever-changing pandemic environment and marketing efforts.
Some market segments did better than others, particularly golf. Rounds of golf are since up 14% over 2020, and the metrics are some of the highest levels seen in a decade. Plus, golfers also spend more on travel than the average tourist, Parrish said.
Domestic travel primarily propelled the tourism industry as individuals had money to burn since they did not travel, dine out, drive to work or attend events in 2020, Parrish said.
“They had a lot of discretionary cash to go spend on a vacation,” he said. “But that runs out at some point. So I don’t anticipate 2022 to be as strong as a domestic leisure side as it was in summer 2021.”
Looking ahead, Parrish hopes international travel will kick back up this fall with Gov. Henry McMaster’s recommended $50 million for the Parks, Recreation and Tourism department.
The proposal still has to go through the necessary channels and get a final approval. Until then, Parrish doesn’t know how much PRT will receive, but he has plans for any extra money.
Part of the money would fund the five new state parks and some funds will be used as seed money for beach nourishment. A major goal, however, would be to market for international travel. President Joe Biden opened the borders for vaccinated international travelers on Nov. 8, but with COVID-19’s omicron variant, some have still been hesitant.
“I do think at some point this year in 2022 the international traveler is going to start coming back. That’s a big part because they spend money and stay longer. … We need to get them back,” Parrish said.
Since the state doesn’t have nearly the funds of California or Florida, South Carolina pools its money with North Carolina and others in the Southeast to market the region as a whole. He thinks the influx of travel will happen sooner than later as Europeans share the same desire to get out and see the world again.
“All that to say, 2021 was a phenomenal year compared to what I thought it would be,” Parrish said. “It may not be quite what it was in 2019, but it depends on the segment of the industry.”l