|By Dawn Bryant, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 23, 2004 - The Grand Strand had 1.3 million fewer tourists in 2002 than area leaders reported and suffered more from the 2001 terrorist attacks than previous statistics showed.
About 12.7 million tourists came to the beach in 2002, not 14 million as the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce had previously reported. Statistics for 2003 aren't yet available.
With Myrtle Beach and other S.C. destinations struggling to get firm tourism numbers, state officials are starting to develop a standard statewide formula.
The discrepancy in the Grand Strand numbers surfaced after comparing previous visitor numbers with those listed in the chamber's latest annual Statistical Abstract, a publication that gives an economic snapshot of the Grand Strand.
The revised figures come from Virginia-based, travel industry research firm D.K. Shifflet & Associates, which the chamber hired to double check the numbers.
"We never could justify [14 million]. We just didn't feel comfortable with that anymore," chamber president Brad Dean said. "We've just got more accurate sources now."
The S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism plans to form a task force within six months to create a standard formula for the state and its counties to use. The goal is to have a uniform system in place in two years, said Julie Flowers, senior research manager at PRT.
The issue highlights the problem destinations across the country have in trying to track tourism.
With a hodge-podge of number-crunching methods among destinations, the results can create confusion when trying to compare counties and regions. It also creates doubt in how accurately tourism leaders are tracking the state's top industry, which officials say generates $14.5 billion annually.
The state gets 28 million visitors a year.
"It's a moving target. There really is not a fool proof way to do it," Flowers said. "We want to tackle this problem."
PRT wants to develop a standard system so it can present solid, matching data for its regions. The Legislature and other governing bodies are increasingly demanding accountability, Flowers said.
"It's becoming more import ant that we [as a state] are consistent internally," she said.
The changes to Myrtle Beach's visitor numbers didn't affect tourism's estimated economic impact, which stays at about $5 billion a year. And the Grand Strand's place as the leader in the state's tourism industry doesn't change, either.
The chamber's previous formula based the numbers on occupancy rates, accommodations tax collections, retail sales and national inflation rates. It only worked well when the numbers went up, Dean said.
Shifflet's method is more scientific and precise, he said.
Formed in 1982, Shifflet is considered one of the top tour ism tracking companies in the industry. Clients include 40 hotel brands, 70 destination organizations and major theme parks including Disney, Busch Entertainment and Universal Studios.
Shifflet revised the Grand Strand visitor statistics from 1996 to 2002.
Among the changes:
--Declines in the number of visitors during 1997 and 2001. Original reports showed modest growth of about 100,000 people in 1997, and officials had said 2001 was a flat year.
--The 2001 terrorist attacks and lagging economy had a more drastic affect on the Grand Strand than originally thought. About 1.9 million fewer people visited that year.
--The Grand Strand had greater growth in 1999 and 2000. Visitor numbers those years ticked up slightly, by about 100,000 people.
Though the changes might cause concern initially, it will pay off having an independent firm produce the statistics, said Shep Guyton, chamber chairman. Officials will have more credible numbers to use in recruiting businesses and airlines, he said.
"It's hard to refute because we aren't producing them," Guyton said.
One of the stumbling blocks in compiling visitor numbers is defining a tourist. That determines whether you count day trippers, drivers who stop as they pass through town or residents from neighboring counties who come for dinner or shopping.
Last week, new visitor numbers in Hillsborough County, Fla., raised eyebrows when they showed the county's tourism had grown three times bigger than Pinellas County, which has twice as many hotel rooms as Hillsborough and 30 miles of beach.
Developing a standard measuring system is a priority for Visit Florida, the state's main tourism promoter.
Other states and destinations also struggle to find a solution, said Jason Swanson, executive director of Atlanta-based Tour ism Development Specialists, a firm that helps destinations with strategic planning.
"There's no absolute way to measure it," he said. "It's just a lot of ambiguous questions that there are no widely accepted answers to."
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