GEORGETOWN — With increasing tourism numbers in Georgetown County, the area is becoming a popular destination despite being sandwiched by its neighbors Myrtle Beach and Charleston.
“Since we have taken on the moniker here in the county as South Carolina’s Hammock Coast more than a decade ago, we’ve seen a steady increase in tourism,” said Mark Stevens, the director of tourism development for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce.
The topic of tourism along the Hammock Coast is not a new one as Pawleys Island is unofficially known as America’s oldest seaside resort.
“We’ve had tourists coming here for 200 years,” Stevens said.
Originally, the island welcomed tourists who came for its windy conditions — helping to keep mosquitos away and preventing malaria.
With tourism still important to the Georgetown County economy to this day, Stevens said no one knew what was going to happen in April 2020 when the initial COVID-19 shutdown across the state happened.
Tourists spend more than $319 million annually in Georgetown County, and the industry as a whole employ nearly 3,000 workers.
The county saw a nearly 20 percent increase in accommodations tax revenue in 2020 over 2019 and collected $37 million in state and local taxes.
“Had we collapsed here, how devastating that would have been for our local economy,” Stevens said.
Occupancy rates rose during the summer months of 2020 according to Stevens, and the main reason for it is how the county is made up and prospective tourists saw that when booking their vacations.
Visitors stayed away from hotels during the pandemic and were instead attracted to places like Georgetown County which is primarily made up of vacation homes and condos, according to Stevens.
“Hotels suffered at that time, according to updates we received from the state,” Stevens said while adding that Georgetown County does not have many hotels. “Here, we had what people were looking for. They could come to the beach and feel safe.”
This year coming out of the pandemic, visitors are coming to Georgetown County in droves. Prospective tourists have requested over 60,000 copies of the Chamber’s visitor’s guide since April, a record according to Stevens.
In turn, vacation rentals saw nearly 100 percent occupancy rates this summer, a 20 percent increase over 2020.
The city of Georgetown saw a nearly 35 percent jump in occupancy rates in July this year compared to same month in 2020.
The chamber receives nearly $1 million a year in its budget from the county, and Stevens said they primarily market the seven closest states that are drivable.
However, he said they are seeing now seeing visitors from across the country, with Myrtle Beach International and Charleston International airports adding flights.
Stevens said that while they cannot track the exact number of visitors who come to the Hammock Coast, they expect that to increase this fall with the Canadian border now open.
“It’s becoming a year-round destination,” he said. “Summer is always going to be the peak, however.”
A prospective out-of-state visitor emailed Stevens asking where she could see a red-cockaded woodpecker — Georgetown County is known for some of the best bird watching sports on the east coast.
“She said it was a life bird for her and on her bucket list,” he said.
Stevens said that in marketing the Hammock Coast, one thing that always comes back is the word pristine.
This year, Brookgreen Gardens is celebrating 90 years and the county also has Huntington Beach State Park, two places that have been popular in the current pandemic due to social distancing.
“We are so nature-oriented,” Stevens said. “The beach is our big draw, but it isn’t our only drawing card. You can still come here and get away 200 years later.”
Even the city of Georgetown and surrounding areas are cashing in on visitors, with more buildings on the National Register of Historic Places than even Charleston, according to Stevens.
Stevens added that he gets inquiries on the Back Woods Quail Club which brings in thousands of visitors annually for tournaments and the Tour de Plantersville, where bike enthusiasts can ride by historic spots in northern parts of the county.
In 2019, the Bass Pro Shop Bassmaster Elite Series came to Georgetown at the Winyah Bay and the city received national exposure on ESPN.
The planning department is currently drafting a new plan that would increase building heights to 10 stories along U.S. 17 in downtown Georgetown, hoping to lure tourists driving through.
Redevelopment efforts also include a Front Street hotel, which has been years in the making.
“It’s something that Georgetown needs,” Stevens said. “Georgetown has been well on its way on trying to create a new image. A nice hotel on the waterfront, that will be nice.”
National media outlets have noticed the importance of Georgetown County as a destination.
Earlier this month, Georgetown was named runner-up in the annual Best Coastal Small-Town contest by USA Today. Brookgreen Gardens was also nominated for best botanical garden holiday lights for its annual Nights of a Thousand Candles by the media outlet.
“They are great opportunities for us to talk about the Hammock Coast and to get the word out,” he said. “The thing is that we are not a secret. We haven’t been a secret for 200 years since Pawleys Island started attracting people.”
Stevens said that the whole tourism industry in Georgetown County is easily overlooked because you can drive on U.S. 17 and never see the beach, but their goal is building and sustaining it.
“We are in between these two tourism meccas, Charleston and Myrtle Beach,” Stevens said. “It has served us well being sort of an alternative. In recent years people have been looking for this type of place — with nature, world-class dining and homes they can stay in. It’s an easy place to sell.”