COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - People are already booking their spring and summer vacations in cities along the South Carolina coast and industry experts and leaders say spots are going faster than originally expected.
“So far this year, weekend visitation to the Grand Strand has been good with an increase in last-minute bookings. We expect that trend to continue, along with continued improvement in traveler sentiment,” said President and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, Karen Riordan.
The South Carolina Director of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, Duane Parrish, said this is a trend in coastal cities across the state.
Parrish explained the warmer temperatures, promise of wider vaccine availability in the coming months, and people’s high interest in outdoor activities are giving him greater confidence the South Carolina tourism industry will be able to recover by the end of the summer.
“It’s coming faster than I thought if you asked me three months ago,” Parrish said. ‘I think the summer, at the rate we are going, could be a normal summer in terms of occupancy in particular along the coast,” Parrish said about hotel bookings.
According to the Director of Tourism Analysis at the College of Charleston, Daniel Guttentag, the increased interest in travel can be seen clearly from Charleston County.
“We are seeing hotel occupancy numbers on the weekend that are better than we’ve seen in months and months and months,” Guttentag said. “That’s a great indicator because weekend travel is being driven by your vacationers, your leisure travelers, rather than your business travelers,” he added.
He said last weekend, occupancy was only down 10 percent compared to the same time last year, which was before the pandemic caused businesses to shut down. Guttentag said prior weekends saw at least a 20 percent gap between current and past occupancy rates.
“I’m pretty confident we are going to continue to see that pretty regularly from here on out as we head into spring break and the summer,” Guttentag said.
Parrish explained even if people aren’t traveling this month or the next, he is seeing evidence travelers are already making reservations for the summer months. He said while the lack of statewide COVID-19 regulations on businesses is a plus, some still plan to follow the federal guidelines for their customers.
“I think the travel industry in the state is happy we don’t have restrictions now, the smart operators continue to do COVID protocols to make you feel safe…cabin fever is at an all-time high people are ready to go out especially with the warmer weather,” he said.
However, short-term rentals are also experiencing a recent boom in business.
According to Guttentag, short-term rental companies like Airbnb and VRBO are not only reaching pre-pandemic levels of bookings but exceeding them.
In February, short-term rentals was more than 15 percent more popular than February in the prior year, a gap that is only widening over time, he said.
“I’m hearing anecdotally, over the summer it’s getting increasingly difficult if not impossible to get a vacation rental for the summer, so I think the Airbnbs and the VRBOs will have one of their best summers ever along the South Carolina coast,” Guttentag said.
He said while the coast will see the fastest recovery, cities like Columbia and Greenville will also see an increase in tourism as the temperatures warm up and more people get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Parrish said even with the restrictions renewed interest in traveling is allowing business owners to let out a sigh of relief.
“This has been what they’ve waited on for nearly a year…Now, we see a light at the end of the tunnel and the light is getting brighter. And I think that’s going to continue through the spring,” Parris said.
According to guidance from the CDC, masks, social distancing, and frequent hand washing are still recommended even if you are outdoors.
The CDC also recommends keeping active when outside and not sitting in one spot in a park or on the beach.