CHARLESTON, S.C. – Demand for vacations after a wearying recession and a break in gas prices could mean a stronger summer tourism season in the Carolinas, where the industry is worth $35 billion.
"Travel researchers are predicting this is going to be one of the busiest travel seasons since the recession," said Charlie Clark, a spokeswoman for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce on South Carolina's south coast. "We're having a strong season and that's tied to pent-up demand."
"We've made it back to where we were before it dropped off the cliff," said Will Tuttell of the North Carolina Department of Tourism.
Murray Boucher and his wife Linda, of Warren, Ohio, were enjoying their stroll through Charleston's historic district on Friday — a trip on Linda Boucher's bucket list that the couple had put off for 18 months.
"Not because of gas prices, but because of the economy," said Boucher, who works for a utility company. Now, with conditions improving "the gas situation wasn't going to affect us. We were going to come anyway."
"People have been cutting back a good bit over the past two or three years. The general feeling is the economy is slowly improving and people want to get out and do some things," said Perrin Lawson, Perrin Lawson, deputy director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"We're not expecting a record year, but we're expecting a very good year," he added, noting the best year for tourism in the area was 2007.
"Our family has been extremely lucky," said Kinnally, communications director for the Florida Bar Association. "We haven't been hit too hard by the economy."
She said while gas will cost about $280 for gas for the trip to Tryon and back "but that still beats airfare for four."
AAA Carolinas predicted a 3 percent increase in travel in South Carolina this Memorial Day weekend with about 423,000 South Carolinians taking to the highway. A similar increase was expected in North Carolina with 865,000 on the road.
Gas prices in South Carolina were the cheapest in the nation averaging $3.59 a gallon and down about 16 cents this month alone, the auto club said. In North Carolina, the average was $3.73 a gallon, a drop of 10 cents in the past week.
In Myrtle Beach, the heart of South Carolina's tourism industry, the local chamber of commerce regularly surveys travelers.
"People are well aware of the price of fuel," said Brad Dean, the president and CEO of the chamber. "Most still plan to travel this summer but they may cut back on purchases or shorten their stay."
But he added cheap gas in South Carolina won't have a big impact on out-of-state travelers.
"For the consumer who travels they are not focused on what people are paying here," he said. "For most consumers it's the gas price fatigue of seeing day to day what they are paying in their home market that ultimately that takes its toll on travel plans."
At the upscale Mills House Hotel in Charleston's historic district, occupancy was strong since last summer, in part because of the Gulf oil spill, and expected to remain strong this year, said Tripp Hays, the hotel's director of sales and marketing.
He said the hotel this summer could set occupancy records, although rates are lower than in years past so it might not be a record year in terms of revenue.
"Gas prices are an issue but they tend to be coming down. I know several hotels, including the Mills House, have promotions that if you stay with us two nights, we'll give you a $50 gas card," he said.
Clark said several hotels on Hilton Head are also offering gas card promotions.
He said while bookings are slightly higher than this time last year, he's holding room rates at last year's levels. But he says people seem to be willing to spend a bit more cash for extras like bike rentals, T-shirts and souvenirs.
"Last year, once they paid for the accommodations, there was very little other spending," he said.
But the improvement in the economy hasn't been felt everywhere in the tourism industry.
Tammy Sessons, who runs the Dillsboro Chocolate Factory in the mountains of Jackson County, N.C., said business has been flat for three years and shows no immediate signs of picking up.
She is also coordinator for the Dillsboro's Art and Music Festival next month. But people have been slow to sign up as exhibitors at the event celebrating mountain crafts and music.
"Our numbers are really low this year, and I think it has a lot to do with this economy stuff," she said.