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Tourism: Myrtle Beach needs you, inlet group told

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

“Tourism works best when you blur the boundaries,” says the head of the firm drafting a tourism development plan for South Carolina.

And with Myrtle Beach set to spend more than 30 times the amount Georgetown County does on tourism promotion, business leaders in Murrells Inlet say blurring the boundaries makes sense.

“We are not intimidated by being part of the Grand Strand-Myrtle Beach area,” said Jennifer Averette, director of the Murrells Inlet 2020 community revitalization group.

She and other members of the group met with consultants from Tourism Development International last week. The Dublin-based firm will complete a long-range tourism plan for the state in 2010.

“It will be a blueprint for tourism development for the next decade,” said Peter McNulty, the firm’s managing director. The goal is “to improve the yield and develop a more sustainable approach.”

He said “blurring the boundaries” is important because tourists don’t make the same distinctions between communities and their governments that residents do.

Within Georgetown and Horry counties, where the consultants spent the last three weeks, “you are different from each other, but you have to work together,” said Robert Cleverdon, the firm’s project director.

Although Myrtle Beach is the dominant market, he said it caters to a sector – “drive and flop” – that isn’t growing.

“They know their future depends on you,” he told the group from Murrells Inlet. “They have to broaden their economic base.”

The sights and activities in Georgetown County contribute to what Cleverdon called the “beach plus” market, which is growing.

While it’s important to work together, areas such as Murrells Inlet need to preserve their individual identities, he said.

Paul Battaglino, a capital projects planner for Georgetown County, said Murrells Inlet residents have worked hard to protect their community.

The problem is a lack of funding. “There are still great demands that need to be met,” he said.

“We want to keep it quaint, but still bring in tourists,” Averette said.

With little in the way of accommodations for visitors, Murrells Inlet depends on drive-through visitors, said Al Hitchcock, a 2020 board member and partner in Drunken Jack’s restaurant.

“We wouldn’t be in business here if it wasn’t for Myrtle Beach,” he said.

Restaurants have targeted visitors to Myrtle Beach for many years, and those along the Marsh Walk have organized to maintain that tradition. But restaurants are frustrated by the lack of signs on Bypass 17 to direct traffic toward the business waterfront district, said Michelle Huggins, whose marketing firm handles the Marsh Walk promotions.

Murrells Inlet 2020 has plans for a streetscape project along Business 17, and Hitchcock said infrastructure is currently a higher priority than advertising for drawing tourists.

“If the grass is 2 feet high, they’ll just drive on by,” he said.

McNulty said the tourism plan won’t necessarily bring any funds with it, but it can help communities get money to achieve specific goals.

“Until now, you’ve had every man for himself” in funding tourism, he said.

Cleverdon told the group that better highway landscaping is a common need in the region. “The sense of arrival is very weak,” he said. “Highway 501 is a disaster.”

The shortage of accommodations isn’t a drawback for Murrells Inlet, he said. The area’s attractions contribute to overnight stays in other areas.

“You’re putting heads on their beds,” Cleverdon said.

He believes that Murrells Inlet’s water-based activities can help the area attract younger visitors. “Use those as part of the key marketing message to broaden the market,” he said.

McNulty said activities and heritage tourism are growing markets, and that heritage and culture offer the best opportunities for expanding the tourist season.

As for marketing to tourists who are already in Myrtle Beach, Cleverdon said it all depends on how the money is spent.

“It’s OK to do something small, but keep doing it consistently,” he said.

The county’s Tourism Management Commission last week approved a series of ads that will run in Golf magazine starting in January that are targeted at Myrtle Beach golfers. They emphasize the area’s laid-back lifestyle as well as its top-rated golf courses.

“We don’t want to say anything negative about Myrtle Beach. They are the reason we get a lot of the golfers,” said John Kautz, account director for Rawle Murdy, the commission’s ad agency.

Commission member David Teems, director of Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort, said he believes the images of fishing and beaches juxtaposed with golf holes will appeal to upscale golfers.

“Laid back to me is no stress,” said commission member David McMillan, who is also a partner in Drunken Jack’s. “That’s what they want: no stress.”

That’s a message Hitchcock said resonates with people he meets on the Marsh Walk. “I like to tell people life travels a little bit slower in Murrells Inlet,” he said.

And Hitchcock believes it would be easier to get that message out if the state changed its approach to tourism. “I’d like to see it treated as an industry rather than a taxable entity,” he said.

While factories get tax breaks, tourism pays sales tax, hospitality tax and accommodations tax, he said.

McNulty said the study advocates industry status for tourism.

“Tourism is the future,” Cleverdon said.

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