COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A week into the summer season that typically drives South Carolina’s robust tourism economy, finding ways to safely draw visitors to the state amid the coronavirus outbreak is top-of-mind for officials discussing the state’s reopening.
“For the tourism industry, it is certainly a depression,” Helen Hill, CEO of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Tuesday, of the overall economic downturn spawned by the outbreak. ”It has been really difficult.”
Hill spoke during a meeting of a state Senate committee studying the best way to revamp South Carolina’s economy in the wake of the outbreak, during which more than 12,000 people have been infected in the state, and 500 have died.
For South Carolina, Hill stressed a need to harness interest from what she called the “drive market,” or tourists who would be driving to the state instead of using air travel, which is still dramatically down since the outbreak began.
Nationwide, Hill said, tourism and hospitality losses amid the outbreak have totaled about $195 billion thus far. Earlier this year, state Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Duane Parrish forecast that South Carolina’s tourism industry – which last year brought in more than $24 billion – would this year be cut in half by the outbreak, rather than continuing a yearslong path of record-setting growth.
Parrish and Hill both served on AccelerateSC, a task force formed by Gov. Henry McMaster to advise him on how to safely jump start the state’s economy. The group officially wrapped up its work last week, submitting a 50-page report that included dozens of recommendations ranging from how people can best protect themselves from the virus and a request that lawmakers temporarily give local governments more freedom on how they can spend hotel and restaurant taxes.
One key component of the group’s work is how South Carolina should spend $1.9 billion in federal COVID-19 aid. Several suggestions have already been made, including $500 million to replenish the unemployment trust fund and $100 million to expand broadband internet access. McMaster will review the spending ideas and then submit the committee’s report along with his notes and additional details on how he thinks the federal money should be spent to the General Assembly, which plans to return in mid-June to debate and approve the spending plan.
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Rusty Monhollon, executive director of the Commission on Higher Education, said the state’s colleges and universities had incurred more than $82 million in extra costs during the outbreak, including expenses related to bringing students home from study-abroad programs and shifting to online learning. While many costs will be covered under federal assistance programs, Monhollon said that won’t help with lost research and athletics programs revenue, or potentially declining enrollments for next year.
With the Senate panel planning to meet again, Hill pledged she would have a more positive outlook to share at the next gathering, noting increasing attendance at the state’s re-opened beaches and state parks.
“I promise that when I come back, I’m going to be coming back with good news,” Hill said.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP