Banner tourism year brings new challenges

Beaufort County tourism had a great year in 2014, with this year projected to be another banner one.

More than 2.6 million people visited southern Beaufort County last year, according to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. That's up from the 2.4 million seen in previous years.

Beaufort and the Sea Islands also saw a slight increase in visitors, and Hunting Island State Park led all state parks with 1.3 million visitors.

This is good news for a county where tourism drives the economy, touching almost every aspect of life.

But as we celebrate and dissect the reasons, the most important thing to remember is this: We did well, but so did everybody else.

It was a record year for the $18 billion tourism industry statewide. State park attendance was up 11 percent, for example. And it was a good year for tourism nationally.

Industry leaders in this county cannot sit back.

Marketing must increase. Destinations that pull back on marketing when times are good get punished by the marketplace.

Development of niche events and tourism sectors must continue and become more focused. Beaufort County's potential for heritage, historical and cultural tourism can be fleshed out through better coordination of the numerous local opportunities for a visitor.

The world needs to know the Lowcountry as a haven for the active lifestyle. We must capitalize on golf and tennis but also on bicycling, running, walking, kayaking, sailing, fishing and exercising.

Private property owners who put their villas and homes on the short-term rental market must pour money into them for renovations and upgrades. Worn-out, frumpy housing looks like a flip phone in an iPhone world. Visitors shop before they arrive and can see all their options on the Internet. Beaufort County property owners must keep pace.

Hilton Head Island has seen a recent surge of $400 million in renovations to hotels, commercial tracts and resorts. That's what it will take to protect the invaluable brand name the island has built up over the past half century.

Local residents and front-line employees need to be ambassadors. They must be informed, efficient and customer-friendly. Hilton Head makes its money on repeat visitors and visitors who stay a full week. The best way to keep that pipeline flowing is to treat visitors fairly and with respect.

And no one in Beaufort County can overlook the consistent No. 1 reason visitors say they come: the natural beauty. That requires public policy that protects natural resources.

So what does a banner year in tourism mean in Beaufort County? It means more hard work.

 

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