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Gulf Coast Oil Spill Could Point Tourists to Myrtle Beach Area as
Local Chambers of Commerce Field Calls from Worried Vacationers

By Jake Spring, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 5 2010--The Grand Strand could benefit from the Gulf Coast's misfortune as tourists planning to vacation there shift their travel plans fearing the impact of the oil spill.

The Myrtle Beach Area and North Myrtle Beach chambers of commerce said there has been an increase in calls from those concerned about the spill and possibly looking for a different beach to visit.

"It started Saturday, and people are calling because they're concerned they won't be able to go to the Gulf shore," said Ruthanne Ellis, director of the North Myrtle Beach Visitors Center. "They're afraid, and they want to go ahead and set up their plans so they will have a place for vacation with their families for the summer."

Ellis, who is one of two people who answers phones at the center, said calls have been coming nonstop. Many callers say they have reservations along the Gulf Coast, Ellis said, and are inquiring about North Myrtle Beach in case they decide to change vacation plans.

ResortQuest, a Florida-based vacation rental company with operations in South Carolina, booked $40,000 worth of reservations at its properties on the Grand Strand last weekend, much of it from vacationers adjusting their travel plans away from the Gulf Coast, said Craig McGee, director of operations for the Myrtle Beach office.

The company has about $18million in reservations along the Gulf Coast, said Cheryl Spezia, a marketing executive with ResortQuest. Some of that money could come to the Grand Strand, she said, should the Gulf beaches be affected by the spill. Customers will have a chance to transfer their bookings to ResortQuest's other properties, including those in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Hilton Head Island and elsewhere in the U.S., as is normal ResortQuest policy, she said.

The company's 118 units would normally reach 70 percent occupancy in peak season but could get close to filling up because of the added reservations, McGee said.

Fear among tourists may be expanding quicker than the oil spill off the Gulf Coast, already costing the region millions of dollars as its peak summer tourism season approaches. And with some scientists imagining oil eventually hitting South Beach, Fla., anxiety is following that hypothetical track up Florida's East Coast. Tourism is a $60 billion business in Florida.

Grand Strand companies such as Dunes Vacation Rentals might get some business from Gulf Coast vacation rental companies looking for a place to offload their reservations, general manager Ryan Swaim said.

Swaim said that while vacation rental companies may send them some business later on, most have yet to make those decisions. Dunes has also received a couple of individual inquiries from the spill, he said.

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce also has gotten calls about the spill, but is waiting to see the ultimate impact on Grand Strand tourism, said Brad Dean, the chamber's president and chief executive.

"This is a critical time that many visitors are making their decisions for where they'll visit in the summer," Dean said.

The Gulf Coast gets most of its visitors from the South and the Midwest, Dean said, whereas the Grand Strand gets most of its tourists from the East Coast. The Strand does have a strong ad presence in those areas, so it may pick up some of the Gulf Coast tourists, he said.

But a Grand Strand vacation may not be comparable to one on the Gulf Coast for many tourists, Swaim said.

"We'd certainly open our doors to that opportunity," he said. "It's not exactly apples-to-apples. A lot of people who travel three to four hours to the Gulf Coast would travel eight to 10 hours [to the Grand Strand]."

"It's hard to wish bad on them," Swaim said. "It doesn't look real good for them right now."

Some tourists are concerned that even the Grand Strand might not be an option if oil gets into the strong loop stream current that circles Florida and comes up the East Coast.

"We've also had some confusion about, 'Is this going to have impact on our coast?'" said Stephen Greene, president and chief executive of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association. "It's also so early, and not knowing where and when the impact might be, that we have not heard a lot of response, a lot of requests."

The grim novelty of the country's worst oil spill since 1989 has the Sunshine State's tourism leaders arguing over the best way to face the crisis and remind vacationers that ... at least for the moment ... all of Florida's coastline remains open for business.

"Let's not jump to conclusions before the event has even happened," said Andy Newman, spokesman for the Florida Keys tourism bureau. "When I hear messages out there saying the Keys is basically going to be devastated, that's not appropriate."

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

Contact JAKE SPRING at 626-0310.

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Copyright (c) 2010, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

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