Mid-Atlantic
The compound of Hampton Place in Palmetto Dunes as seen on Thursday, April 9, 2020, is a combination of owner occupied and vacation rentals on Hilton Head Island. Drew Martin / Hilton Head Island Packet

SC - Was Hilton Head Tourism a Boom or a Bust Due to the Pandemic? What the Numbers Show

On Hilton Head Island, summer tourism is the lifeblood.

It prompts employees and businesses to specialize in extra touches. The servers, shop owners and boat captains of the island know their guests — from their myriad food allergies to the inlets where they got lucky fishing last summer — and they cater to them to keep them coming back.

Certainly, Hilton Head has a wow factor. A child’s mouth, ringed with chocolate ice cream, is agape as she sees a dolphin breach for the first time. A sunburned couple celebrating their 50th anniversary delights to discover they can zipline high above Hilton Head’s pine trees.

No matter how much the town government talks about the tourists as a monolith, or locals complain about the cars with out-of-state license plates jamming the bridges, Hilton Head needs its normal infusion of visitors each summer to get by.

And summer 2020 never had a chance of being normal.

The coronavirus pandemic brought tourism on Hilton Head to a screeching halt in spring as restaurants and shops closed for weeks. In that time, restaurant kitchens pivoted to make meals for employees instead of families from Ohio. Residents bought gift cards from local spots to keep them afloat instead of nursing beers at their bars and heckling the bartender about college football.

But still, it took a toll. The total estimated economic impact loss from March 8 to July 11 was $310 million in Beaufort County, according to the Office of Tourism Analysis at College of Charleston.

Then, things started to open again in early May.

With caution, the regulars returned to their spots on the beach and favorite corner booths. Tourists trickled back. The island dealt with “bad beach behavior” over Memorial Day, when people parked illegally and left behind 1,600 bags of trash, but had mostly ironed out the kinks for July 4th.

Throughout the summer, Hilton Head fared better than other parts of the country. Its wide open spaces and opportunities for outdoors exploration may have saved it from the desolation bigger cities and concert amphitheaters face on the tourism front.

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