Tourism is big business on Hilton Head Island. More than 2.67 million tourists visited the area last year – the most ever – and more than a few of them headed to Sea Pines to climb the 114 steps at Harbour Town lighthouse.
After all, the 90-foot-high beacon is the island’s top individual attraction and has been since 1970 when it first opened. Standing on the observation deck allows a 360-degree panoramic view of land and water stretching for miles into the Lowcountry distance.
Each $4.25 ticket sold last year for that experience contributed to the $1.4 billion in revenue generated by tourism. So did each crab cake platter, round of golf, and hotel stay.
Along with the steadfast economic impact comes the corresponding local tax revenue, which has increased 40 percent over the past five years, said Charlie Clark, vice president of communications for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
Accommodations, hospitality and beach preservation fees generated $21.9 million last year.
Despite the threat of brooding dark clouds on the horizon in Hurricane Matthew’s wake, the future is as bright as sunrays bouncing off Calibogue Sound in mid-afternoon.
“When you look around the island, business is booming,” Clark said. “People aren’t thinking about the hurricane. It’s a non-issue.”
Hilton Head Town Manager Steve Riley said some public improvements projects were postponed because of the storm, but none that directly impact tourism.
“All repairs have been made and all of the facilities for tourism access are open,” he reports.
“We’re optimistic about this year,” Clark said. “We’re upward trending already with ‘reservations on the books,’ where we take a snapshot into the future.”
That snapshot – reservations for the 6,000 available homes and villa units as of March 31 for the six month-period through September – is up 19.6 percent over last year, as determined by DestiMetrics travel research, Clark said.
The Hilton Head Island Beach & Tennis Resort, for instance, enjoyed a banner year in 2016 in its occupancy rate and rental revenue, and projects a 20 percent increase this year over last, said executive director Kate Clewell.
The family-oriented, 56-acre property underwent a multi-million dollar upgrade two years ago to its 846 villas, handful of restaurants and bars and property amenities, and the investment clearly is paying off.
“We had an extremely busy, busy summer last year,” said Clewell. “We’re ecstatic about all of our renovations at the resort and how they’re bringing in new clientele.”
A typical stay for tourists is six days at a rental home or villa or at one of the more than 3,000 hotel rooms on the island. Seventy percent of them return to visit the Lowcountry, which is one of the “highest repeat rates in travel,” Clark said. “The weeklong family vacation is alive and well on Hilton Head Island.”
A solid corps of vacationers travel the four-plus hours by car from regional hotspots Atlanta and Charlotte. Many head south from Chicago, Ohio and Kentucky, but the “main corridor of where our visitors come from is the Northeast,” Clark said.
Those who don’t drive will fly on a number of airlines that serve the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport. All of the major carriers, as well as newcomers JetBlue, Sun Country, Allegiant and Air Canada, transport more than half of the flyers, who then will stay in the Lowcountry for business or pleasure.
“This is the first time we’ve had Canadian air service,” Clark said. “We have been working to cultivate that particular route for a couple of years.” Nonstop service from Toronto to Savannah began May 1.
Those who vacation here eat (at 250 restaurants), play (24 world-class golf courses and 350 tennis courts), bicycle (50 miles of public pathways and multi-use trails), sun and swim (12 miles of nourished beaches), kayak, paddleboard, Zip Line, fish, sail, bird watch, hike, shop, etc.
But Clark points out that “When we ask visitors what’s the No. 1 thing you love most about Hilton Head Island, they tell us it’s the natural beauty.”
The national media know all about that in Hilton Head and Bluffton – magazines (Travel & Leisure, Traveler, Forbes, etc.); television (Travel Channel and National Geographic Traveler); web sites (Trip Advisor); and books (Fodor’s Travel) – and it is proven in their annual rankings of those destinations on their “best,” “top” and “great” lists.
“People often forget that those rankings don’t just happen,” Clark said. “Every single day, we actively pursue getting the word out about Hilton Head with magazines, editors, writers and producers. That’s our job.”
Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.