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Tourism: Island reaching capacity during peak season

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The consultants who came to Pawleys Island last week to gather ideas for a statewide tourism development initiative left calling the island unique, and even a little “bizarre.”

It’s the first place they’ve found in South Carolina where tourism growth threatens to overwhelm the features that attract visitors, the consultants said.

“We’re sensitive to the fact that the more you generate visits to Georgetown County, the more you impact Pawleys Island,” said Robert Cleverdon, team leader for Tourism Development International. The Dublin-based firm is in the final phase of a tourism development study for the state that began four years ago.

Cleverdon and Jim Jessamine, another tourism consultant, traveled the county last week to learn how the area wants to present itself in the study and how the tourism industry wants to develop.

Sitting with local officials and accommodations providers at a long table in the kitchen of the Pelican Inn, the consultants heard that Pawleys Island has reached capacity during the summer, but wouldn’t mind a few more visitors in the spring and fall “shoulder seasons.”

“We can’t take any more day visitors,” Mayor Bill Otis said.

“We’re looking for the balance,” said Alan Altman, broker in charge at Pawleys Island Realty. “How many more people can we take without affecting the experience?”

He said he’s concerned when he hears talk about building more hotels on the mainland, since that will lead to more day visitors coming to the island, which is already a destination for county residents as well as people on day-trips from Myrtle Beach.

Jessamine was sympathetic. “You’re the victim of your own success,” he said.

Cleverdon said the island is proof that it is possible to have too good an image in the public mind. “What they say is, ‘Pawleys Island isn’t what it used to be,’ ” he said.

Heads around the table nodded in agreement.

Despite the influx of people, Otis said the town has been able to deal with it by enforcing existing rules for parking, trespassing and littering.

He said litter isn’t much of a problem because many visitors bring their own bags to take trash off the beach.

“That’s very positive,” Cleverdon said.

The group also included Lou Lachicotte and Martha Thompson from the Lachicotte Co., Sassy Henry from the Sea View Inn and Matt Giltmier of Pawleys Island Realty.

Henry and Giltmier serve on the county Tourism Management Commission.

They said future tourism development in the area needs to be family-oriented.

“Pawleys is more of a let’s-be-a-family vacation,” Henry said. “Parents are more plugged into unplugging.”

Thompson said the Waccamaw River and Intracoastal Waterway are underdeveloped assets that could take pressure off the beach. “I don’t think its utilized enough,” she said.

Otis explained that the Pee Dee River offers views of several plantations and miles of former ricefields. “Almost nobody sees that,” he said.

It is those hidden resources that the consultants are looking for, said Annette Fisher, president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Cleverdon said they discovered many tourism resources as they worked their way through the inland counties. The common element of tourism in the state is that there isn’t enough to do in any one area.

“Circuit touring routes is what makes tourism happen,” he said. “In South Carolina, it’s a matter of putting things together.”

Cleverdon, who lives in southern England, brought his family to Myrtle Beach for a vacation when he started work on the tourism plan. After four days, his wife asked, “can we go somewhere real?”

They went to Brookgreen Gardens.

He said Myrtle Beach will always be a large-scale beach resort, but said it caters to two types of visitors.

One, the “drive and flops,” is happy with what Cleverdon called “the manufactured product component.”

The other, the “beach plus” visitors, are looking for more things to do.

“Pawleys Island is part of the ‘plus’ component,” he said. “There is part of the day-trip market that can be quite positive.”

Lachicotte said that businesses on the Pawleys mainland benefit from the people traveling from Myrtle Beach.

Cleverdon said the city of Georgetown can also benefit.

“Georgetown is a lovely place to visit,” he said, and he believes the city ought to capitalize on its link to Michelle Obama, whose family comes from Georgetown.

The problem, he said, is “what are the kids going to do?”

That’s why it is important to develop links between areas to satisfy the needs of visitors, he said.

A public forum on the tourism development plan is scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight at Georgetown City Hall.

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