The total solar eclipse of Aug. 21 got more than a million and a half people moving to or within South Carolina, generating an estimated economic impact of $269 million, a study commissioned by the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism found. That makes the eclipse the largest single tourist event in the state’s history.
“It was just a phenomenal event,” department spokesperson Dawn Dawson said. “It was free, it was easy to get to, it was a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event. We had good weather. All the stars aligned for us.”
The visitation numbers, hotel bookings and other travel expenditures were derived from a study conducted by private contractors for the agency. The study focused on the Eastern Seaboard states that traditionally produce a high concentration of travelers to South Carolina. Its numbers, which do not reflect international visitation or travel from other parts of the country, show that around 1.6 million people traveled to or within South Carolina for the eclipse.
Many of those travelers came to Columbia, taking part in a lecture series at the University of South Carolina, participating in events at the S.C. State Museum or watching the two minutes and 36 seconds of totality – longest on the East Coast – around town. More than 9,600 people packed Spirit Communications Park alone for an unusual day/night eclipse/baseball doubleheader.
“We knew that this would be a great away for Columbia to really showcase what we have to offer to people who may not have considered Columbia as a travel destination before,” said Kelly Barbrey, vice president of sales and marketing for Experience Columbia SC. “We were using it as a catalyst to spark people’s interest in Columbia. Now we have this data that we can use to market other things to them.”
The study found that more than half of eclipse travel occurred in-state, with S.C. residents seeking out a different location to view the eclipse. Around 800,000 visitors came from out of state, primarily from North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Most travelers stayed at their destinations overnight and shopped in local stores, ate at local restaurants and/or visited nearby outdoor or historical attractions.
“Our destinations are telling us that some of the visitors they welcomed and hosted had been in their destinations for the first time, like Greenwood,” Dawson said. “It’s a beautiful place. They’re saying they made impressions, and they’re hoping these people come back.”
Most visitors viewed the eclipse in the Columbia, Charleston or Greenville metro areas. Hotel occupancy rates in Columbia hit 96.3% on Aug. 20, the Sunday before the eclipse, a study by national hospitality data provider STR found. Greenville saw occupancy rates of 96.9% and Charleston 96.7% on that day.
That rate represented a 135.2% increase across the region of Richland, Lexington and the city of Columbia over the same day the previous year, Barbrey said, and a 171% increase for downtown Columbia. The revenue per available room was 380% higher for the region and 487% higher in downtown.
“It’s really staggering when you think about it, that a natural phenomenon that comes around every once in a while could cause this much excitement,” Barbrey said. “We were very glad that we started organizing early and saw the potential of this.
“Hopefully we can get some repeat visitation, because from what we saw, people had a really good time.”
Of the top 15 cities in the path of totality, Salem, Ore., hotels had the highest occupancy rate with 99.7%. Greenville’s rate was the highest among totality-path cities with more than 5,000 rooms.
Greenville’s occupancy rate increased 52% over the same the day the previous year, and its revenue per available room increased 233%.
“This will be something we will be talking about for a couple of years,” said David Montgomery, director of sales for VisitGreenvilleSC. “This far exceeded our expectations.”
The study found that 48% of out-of-state travelers and a third of in-state travelers headed to an optimal viewing site such as a park, a mountain spot or the coast. About 23% of out-of-state and 25% of in-state visitors participated in an organized eclipse event.
Nearly all of the survey respondents rated their eclipse experience as “excellent” or “good.” The few “fair” or “poor” ratings were almost all because of poor weather, the study said.
“The history of South Carolina travel and tourism is that there are a lot of things to see in South Carolina, but it rarely reaches this level,” Dawson said. “It involved most of the state, for the 70 miles of the path of totality that went from the mountains to the coast.”