CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — While an improving economy would seem to be good news for South Carolina's $14 billion tourism industry encouraging more people to travel, it's shadowed by rapidly rising gas prices that could hit $4 a gallon in as soon as six weeks.
"The indications are that $4 a gallon is very, very realistic. And at this pace it's going to hit sometime in April," warned Tom Crosby, a spokesman for the AAA Carolinas based in Charlotte, N.C.
Such a price would approach the record high in South Carolina set in September of 2008 when gas hit $4.12 a gallon.
This weekend is the unofficial opening of the spring tourism season on the South Carolina coast. Thousands of people were in Charleston for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition that features, among other things, wildlife art, sporting dog competitions and cooking demonstrations.
The outlook for the coming tourism season will be discussed when the Governor's Conference on Travel and Tourism opens Monday in Greenville. Governor Nikki Haley will be among those addressing representatives of the tourism industry, which is one of the state's biggest.
"Gas is always scary but it's something we can't control so I don't intend to focus on it too much," said Duane Parrish, the director of the state Department of Parks Recreation and Tourism. "South Carolina is primarily a drive market and roughly 80 percent of the people who come into the state come in by car, so gas does have an impact."
Parrish said there are enough large cities near the state — Atlanta, Charlotte and Raleigh — that people will still visit despite rising gas prices.
"Even in bad times when gas prices are high, people still have the urge to travel. They may just not go as far, spend as much or stay as long," he said.
Charlie Clark, a spokeswoman for the Hilton Head Island Chamber of Commerce agreed.
"What we find is that as gas prices rise, it doesn't impact people's plans to get here but it can impact their plans for what they do when they get here," she said. "That means they may be going out to dinner a little less or playing one round of golf instead of two."
Brad Dean, the president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said the thousands of rooms at the beach help keep rates down below the national average.
"I wouldn't say we'll benefit directly but being an affordable market, the consumer may look to come here to save money," he said.
Parrish added that in some ways, higher gas could work in South Carolina's favor, with visitors who might have headed south to Florida deciding to save some money on gas and vacationing here instead.
Parrish and others expect tourism to be up this year, despite the uncertainty about gas.
"There's a lot of pent-up demand," he said. "People who couldn't take a vacation the last couple of years, all of a sudden cabin fever has set in and they need to go somewhere."
We're expecting a definite improvement over last year, even if it's only 2 to 3 percent," Crosby said.
Crosby noted that, on Feb. 1 last year, gas in South Carolina was just under $3 a gallon. By April 1, it had jumped to $3.62. This year on Feb. 1 gas was $3.34 a gallon and a similar increase would mean a gas approaching $4 a gallon by April.
Prices increase in spring as refiners switch to more expensive anti-smog blends ahead of the summer driving season. This year, the easing of the European financial crisis is helping to increase demand and uncertainty about production in Iran could spike prices, Crosby said.
Gas costing $4 a gallon "is a reality check and people start changing their behaviors. We have never been able to live with $4 and when it gets to $4 demand started to slip and it helped force prices back down," he added.
"As much as the price of fuel is a relatively nominal part of a vacation in the whole scheme of things, it draws more attention because we see it every day going to and from work and the grocery store. It's on the minds of consumers throughout America," Dean said.
South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism: http://www.discoversouthcarolina.com/
Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce: http://www.visitmyrtlebeach.com/
Hilton Head Island Chamber of Commerce: http://www.hiltonheadisland.org/