Midlands Tourism Has Momentum to Eclipse Previous Numbers, Experts Say

Staff Report From Columbia CEO

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

A fortuitous aligning of the planets – so to speak – is helping to spark tourism growth in the Midlands.

The 2017 solar eclipse overlapped a strategy shift from state tourism officials. The first attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists for a once-in-a-lifetime event, while the other is promoting all of South Carolina to visitors instead of just the coast.

The Midlands saw 5.5 million overnight tourists and 9.2 million day visitors in 2017, according to Experience Columbia SC, the area’s conventions and visitors organization. That total is up 200,000 compared to 2015 (stats are kept every two years).

“We have every reason to believe those numbers will continue to be on the rise because the hotel statistics are showing their numbers are up as well,” said Kelly Barbrey, an Experience Columbia SC vice president.

Barbrey was part of a group of tourism experts that spoke to members of the S.C. Public Relations Society of America on Tuesday in Columbia. Fellow panelist Kim Jamieson, a public relations manager with the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism, said they’re trying to coax visitors to see more of a state known for its shoreline.

“Discover the undiscovered part of South Carolina,” is how Jamieson put it.

To that end, SCPRT launched the S.C. Barbecue Trail in 2014. The initiative explained the various types of Palmetto State-style pulled pork and where to get it, publicizing some out-of-the-way destinations.

“People are still really fascinated by it,” Jamieson said. “That was a really great catalyst for places that were off the beaten path.”

Midlands haunts such as Shealy’s Bar-B-Que in Batesburg-Leesville and Hawg Heaven Barbecue in Prosperity made the list, but a more distant sight could also have a long-lasting impact.

“We capitalized on the fact that the center line of totality came right through the Midlands,” Barbrey said of the August 2017 eclipse.

She said the Midlands received an estimated 400,000 visitors during the event.

“That was a major, major win for our region and planted the seeds for future tourism,” Barbrey said. “We had a lot of instances in the media where people said, ‘we’re going to come back and do all those different things that we didn’t get a chance to do while we were here for the eclipse.’ ”

SCPRT reports that statewide, hotel revenue for 2017 was up 6.2 percent compared to 2016. Through April of this year, it’s up 3 another percent.

In identifying its target market, Capital City/Lake Murray Country draws a circle with a five-hour driving radius, according to Jayne Baker, vice president with the tourism promotion organization.

“We’re seeing lots of traffic from Asheville, Charlotte, Atlanta,” she said.

Dr. Rich Harrill, a professor in the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management, described Columbia as a “cool, eclectic community.”

“Eclectic communities make money,” he said.

They also hold an economic development advantage in that amenities popular with tourists can help attract and retain full-time residents.

“Quality of life is the glue that holds everything together,” Harrill said.

SCPRT estimates tourism in South Carolina is a $21 billion-plus industry that generates approximately $1.6 billion in state and local taxes each year. In the Midlands, Experience Columbia SC estimates the impact at $2.1 billion and $107 million in taxes.