The South Carolina State Museum has recently opened up with a new schedule to keep both guests and employees safe from the pandemic. Photos by: Mary Claire Warren

After a brutal economic year, S.C. tourism officials hope decreasing COVID-19 cases, widespread vaccinations and a pent-up appetite for travel and adventure will help tourism in the state bounce back.

Income from tourism has been minimal throughout the country for over a year now. Much like every other state, South Carolina has been struggling as tourism became nearly nonexistent in 2020. According to tourism experts, South Carolina lost nearly $12 million of its tourism income in 2020. With travel bans and other safety regulations beginning to rise, many are hopeful that tourism may start to pick up again.

This was all the more painful because 2019 was a record-breaking year for tourism in the state, with an increase of 10.5 percent in incoming flights at South Carolina’s major airports, according to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism.

“It is really interesting because 2019 was a huge year for tourism in South Carolina,” said Terry Walsh, a researcher who works with South Carolina’s state parks. “When COVID hit, though, everything just plummeted. Parks and beaches closed down and people just weren’t comfortable to travel.”

In a Q&A held by the University of South Carolina in March, tourism expert and UofSC professor Simon Hudson said that tourism in South Carolina fell by 15 percent from 2019 to 2020. He also estimates that South Carolina tourism revenue was cut in half after the pandemic — stating that income decreased from $24 million in 2019 to $12 million in 2020.

“I remember how scary things were at the beginning of the pandemic. People wouldn’t leave their houses to go to local restaurants, let alone go on vacation anywhere,” said 42-year-old Nancy Dryer, a mother of three living in Columbia’s Shandon neighborhood. “Of course tourism was having trouble. I used to be scared even when I was just going to the grocery store back then.”

A study done by Airlines for America states that in 2021, United States airline companies saw a 67 percent decrease in revenue compared to 2019. According to this same study, however, booking numbers have started to rise as travel restrictions are lifted.

With the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control announcing that over 40 percent of South Carolinians have been fully vaccinated, there is hope that South Carolina’s tourism revenue will begin to pick up. 

“I don’t really think of Columbia as a hot spot for tourism and yet there still has been a noticeable difference,” said 27-year-old Molly Park, a waitress from West Columbia. “I really hope things start to pick up around here. I know the economy is hurting for it.”

Some outdoor attractions in Columbia like Riverbanks Zoo and Congaree National Park have been open for several months. Other locations like the South Carolina State Museum have had to adjust their operations due to the pandemic.

According to a blog post on the South Carolina State Museum’s website, operating hours were changed for several months to provide a safer environment for both employees and guests. The museum is now open every day except for Mondays most weeks.

The Columbia Museum of Art has also had to make adjustments due to the pandemic. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday and is operating at a limited capacity. According to the museum’s website, all galleries are open to the public, except for the interactive exhibits.

“I think an increase in tourism is exactly what we need,” said Matthew Jennings, of Columbia. “Columbia is an amazing city, and it deserves more people to come visit and recognize that.”

The Columbia Museum of Art requires guests to wear masks and has opened at a limited capacity.

Because it is an outdoor venue, Riverbanks Zoo has been able to open at limited capacity for several months.