Coronavirus shutdown threatens popular US travel destination: Myrtle Beach Chamber CEO

Tourism to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina may never return to normal, Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce CEO says

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Tourism to a popular East Coast travel destination may never return to normal in wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Myrtle Beach, a vacation hotspot located on South Carolina's Atlantic Coast, and the center of a 60-mile stretch of beaches known as the "Grand Strand," sees an estimated 20.4 million visitors each year, according to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

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However, the virus is taking its toll.

"I don't know that we're ever going to go back to what normal was," said the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Karen Riordan to FOX Business. "I think that this is going to profoundly change how we think about travel everywhere in Myrtle Beach and everywhere across the country and even the world."

Tourism to the area generates $7 billion annually to the local economy and provides more than 80,000 jobs throughout the community, according to estimates from Coastal Carolina University. But Riordan estimates that once this is all over, the decline could account for as much as 40% of gross annual revenues.

This photo shows lights turned on in rooms at South Bay Inn & Suites during the virus pandemic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., April 13, 2020. (Jason Lee/The Sun News via AP)

"We know it's going to have any impact on our summer tourism. Normally, we would be taking a lot of reservations, not just for May, but for June and July and August with our two biggest months of the year being July and August."

What's more, the destination is also responsible for a big chunk of the state's overall economy. According to Riordan, 30 percent of all the accommodations and taxes that go to the state come from Horry County in the Myrtle Beach area.

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Even so, Riordan said that the main goal in mind is returning to normalcy.

"We just really want to get to reopen," she said. "And obviously, we have to balance the needs of the residents and visitors and our employees. I've been talking to a lot of people in the business community. And, you know, everyone wants to open, but we want to open when it's safe. And so we're not putting anyone in jeopardy."

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With the goal of safety in mind, Riordan said she is working closely with Gov. Henry McMaster's office to figure out a timeline to resurrect the local economy. A new task force, "Accelerate Myrtle Beach," comprised of people from the hotel industry, restaurants, attractions, retail and golf courses, is in the works.

Myrtle Beach in October 2019. iStock

Myrtle Beach has roughly 88 golf courses, 425 hotels, 1,800 full-service restaurants, and 300 outlet stores.

In 2018 lodging brought in about $1 billion annually, while restaurants accounted for $1.5 billion, golf courses and country clubs earned $43.6 million and retail stores generated $1.5 billion.

Social distancing has led to many of the areas restaurants and hotels to shut down, with the exception of golf courses for local play. Last month, the Myrtle Beach City Council passed an ordinance that restricted businesses including hotels, rental properties, Airbnb, and VRBO style lodging from taking new reservations prior to April 30.

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However, Riordan struck a note of optimism after observing that people were still looking forward to making new reservations.

"People are calling our hotels and our beach rentals and our condos and our campgrounds and they are making reservations for the next couple of months, but just not at the rate that they would have normally been," she explained.

iStock

Another hint of encouragement, Riordan said, is that many events that were canceled -- group business and sporting events, concerts, and other conference -- have been moved to fall.

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"We could have an absolutely wonderful September and October when things start getting ramped back up again if those bookings will hold for the fall," she said.

But all may not be lost for the summer of 2020 just yet. Riordan said they are looking to a regional play this year in which most visitors who do travel will be "people who pop themselves in a car and drive."

Myrtle Beach is a 92% drive market, according to Riordan, with many people from New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, which is their No. 1 market, and South Carolina, their No. 2 market.

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"The big asterisks really is that timeline," she said. "If we were able to preserve some business in May, if we're able to start to come back up, not 100 percent, but in a powerful way in June and then have the kinds of July and August that we've had in the last couple of years, we will be able to save our summer."

Riordan said she's also hopeful that many people will want to be outdoors.

"The beach is a very, very sought after place when people have been cooped up for many, many weeks. So we do expect that that will help our recovery this summer, but it's just not going to look like a 'normal' summer at all," she said.

"As grim as the situation has been," Riordan added, the community is feeling very hopeful and is very focused on getting Myrtle Beach "running and humming" as soon as possible.

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