Lake Murray is a magnet for thousands of South Carolina residents – especially from the Midlands – as a convenient site for boating, fishing, family outings and enjoying nature.
Many locals who hang out there regularly may not realize that they’re sharing their beloved waters with visitors from all over the world who are rapidly turning the 94-year-old lake into one of the hottest tourism destinations in South Carolina – and the Southeast.
For proof, look no further than statistics released in late August by the Capital City/Lake Murray Country (CCLMC) Regional Tourism Board, which promotes tourism and economic development in Richland, Lexington, Newberry and Saluda counties – the four counties with shoreline along the lake.
In 2022-23, more than 170,000 room nights were booked at short-term rentals located around the lake, generating more than $37 million in revenue through bookings at vacation homes and area hotels.
Stats also showed more travelers booked short-term rentals at the lake in June 2023 than any other on record. Demand nights rose more than 14% year over year and revenue increased by $1 million. How does this make Lake Murray stack up against other lakes in the Carolinas? Stays in June alone generated $4.6 million in revenue, equal to quadruple the rentals at popular Lakes Marion and Moultrie in southeastern South Carolina and Lake Norman north of Charlotte, N.C.
The increased numbers are also evident just from checking out action at CCLMC’s offices off Lake Drive in Columbia. In 2022-23, a record 132,242 people visited there to get more information about what the lake has to offer.
“When we first started out, we might have 10 or 15 families a day, and now we have record-breaking numbers walking in our doors,” said Miriam Atria, president and CEO of CCLMC. “We are getting more business, we’ve had to increase our staff and add onto our building. Lakes are growing as popular tourism attractions, and we’re seeing that here.”
Built for energy
When the idea of Lake Murray was first conceived in the 1920s, attracting tourists was the last thing its creators had on their minds. They wanted electricity.
The lake takes its name from William S. Murray, an engineer involved in the design and creation of the lake’s dam, which was built by the Lexington Water Power Co. to generate electricity for the area’s growing population. (That company later became South Carolina Electric and Gas, which was subsequently taken over by Dominion Energy).
Land was purchased from more than 5,000 families in the area to build the lake, and dozens of area communities, as well as six schools, three churches and 193 graveyards had to be moved, according to a published history of the lake. Stories are still told in the region about graves that still remain under the lake because families chose not to move them.
The reservoir for the lake started filling on Aug. 31, 1929, and 94 years later the lake is still fulfilling its original purpose – water from the hydroelectric plant there generates 245,000,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, enough to power more than 22,000 homes.
Lake Murray covers about 50,000 acres of land and 650 miles of shoreline. The massive body of water is 41 miles long, 14 miles wide and 190 feet deep at its deepest point, and stores about 763 billion gallons of water, according to information from CCLMC.
The lake has always been a popular draw for people from around the Southeast, but the recent surge in visitors is due to a wide variety of factors, Atria said, with two standing out – promotion and the pandemic.
Atria’s marketing organization has made a huge investment in recent years in getting word about the region out to a wider audience. Its national TV ads air all across the U.S. and went international earlier in 2023 through reruns of the XVI World Bass Championship which was held at the lake. The ad recently received a 2023 communicator award from the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts.
CCLMC efforts also have resulted in more than 200 articles in regional and national publications including Garden & Gun and National Geographic Traveler. Statistics show a rapid increase in social media impressions about the lake, 17 million Google Search impressions and more interest from Gen X and millennial travelers, according to Micah Decker, vice president of marketing and communications for CCLMC.
COVID-19, meanwhile, made people think differently about what they wanted from a vacation spot. Lake Murray benefited.
During COVID, Atria said, many people were attracted to the area’s large number of vacation homes because they wanted to escape lockdowns through travel, but not stay in hotels.
“During the pandemic, we never closed our building down – we greeted visitors from behind the door,” she said.
The pandemic caused a nationwide surge in interest in outdoor sports and activities, she said, and Lake Murray didn’t suffer from government restrictions on outdoor activity like some other areas did.
“You could still get out and play golf, get into a boat,” Atria said. “I really think people discovered new activities during the pandemic and that interest has carried on. Lakes in general are generating more interest from tourists because water attracts, and this region is full of water. We have the lake and three area rivers.”
Lake Murray offers something for all types of outdoor loves, from fishing, boating, kayaking and golf to enjoyment of the area’s unique natural beauty, including the annual influx of purple martins, a bird that nests in the millions on the lake’s Bomb Island each summer. Visitors on boats can view the huge flocks of birds as they swarm above the island from boats.
“The birds themselves draw between 20 to 30,000 people a summer easily,” Atria said.
Food and fishing
Two areas in particular are growing in interest and drawing people to the Lake Murray region – food competitions and fishing.
Atria said her organization has made an effort in recent years to promote local chefs and restaurants, particularly after many area eateries suffered during the pandemic. The organization sponsors a Team Lake Murray Country featuring local chefs which competes at the annual World Food Championship. The chefs have been selected by popular vote at the annual Taste of Lake Murray event.
In late September, the CCLMC hosted a “Grilling on the Lake” steak cookoff at the Lexington Lake Murray Dam Public Park which was a sanctioned qualifying event for the Steak Cookoff Associatin’s World Championships. Chefs from around the U.S. gathered for the two-day event which was part of the grilling challenge series created by “Bama-Q,” a TV show dedicated to the world of “food sports.”
CCLMC also announced earlier this year that they will be hosting the Southeastern BBQ Showdown on June 24 at Segra Park in downtown Columbia. The event might be in Columbia, but it is designed as a way to attract more visitors to the entire region, Atria said.
Atria said the idea for the event came about because of a trifecta of food success stories in 2022: three South Carolina teams making it to the World Food Championships, the region hosting a WFC Table Event, and Food and Travel naming the Lake Murray area as a “Top Southern Summer Destination” because of the many eclectic restaurants and food styles available.
The lake is home to 12 species of game fish, particularly largemouth and striped bass. In recent years, thousands of people have visited the lake for fishing tournaments that have drawn anglers from all over the world. The 2022 Black Bass World Championship drew participants from 25 countries across four continents. In 2023, the lake will have hosted Major League Fishing’s Bass Pro Tour and the Bassmaster Elite Series, with an estimated economic impact of $6 million.
The lake’s appeal as a fishing mecca was recently reinforced when Bassmater named Lake Murray the “Best Bass Lake” in the southeast and the fourth best in the nation in its 2023 “100 Best Bass Lakes Revealed” list.
And more lines will keep hitting the lake’s waters in the next year with more major fishing tournaments recently announced. Lake Murray will be a stop on the Bassmaster College Series Tournament Trail on Jan. 26-27, 2024 and the Bassmaster Elite Series will return in 2024, the tenth time the series has visited the lake since 1991.
Atria believes the increase in tourism is going to continue for this inland aquatic jewel, despite the lack of a major hotel along the lake’s shores, an idea that has been floated several times over the years but never materialized.
“Not having a hotel hasn’t stopped us from bringing what we wanted to bring to the area or stopped us from the levels of growth we’re seeing and will continue to see,” she said. “Maybe we’ll eventually get one, but until then we are going to be out beating the bushes and bringing the business here.”
Christina Knauss is a contributing writer for SC Biz News.-