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Top tourism city in US heavily impacted by COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 1:54 PM, Nov 06, 2020

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Ocean views, seafood and southern hospitality are what travelers can expect when visiting Charleston, South Carolina.

“Charleston is a tourist destination," restaurant owner Eli Hyman said. "I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world.”

Multiple publications, including Conde Nast Traveler, have ranked it as the number one small city to visit in the U.S.

Seventh generation Charlestonian Michael Trouche is an expert on tourism in the city. He’s the owner of Charleston Footprint Walking Tours.

“We are unique to America," Trouche said. "We have so many things here that are appealing. We’ve got this magnificent, beautiful, well-preserved city in this large contiguous area of about four-square miles, this wonderful climate with all kinds of blooming gardens and trees. You’ve got Charleston right on the waterfront, right on the Atlantic Ocean… and of course... a great southern hospitality. Charleston has always been known as being a very friendly city, so people just love it. People keep coming here and they keep coming back.”

However, the past eight months and counting have been a nightmare for business and restaurant owners like Eli Hyman of Hyman’s Seafood.

“It’s kind of spooky quiet... it’s eerie," Hyman said. "Because normally these streets would be bustling in the fall. It’s beautiful weather.”

Like most places across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the city hard. Robert Smith is the owner of a local marketing company called The Chart Group.

“It almost was like overnight," Smith said. "First we heard about this virus overseas, and next thing you know we’re shutting our city down.”

Considering the Chart Group offers video production and content creation for Charleston businesses, Smith depends on a thriving tourism industry. As everything shut down, his clients could no longer pay for his services. He too had to furlough employees.

“Tourism within the last 30 or 40 years has become a major component," Trouche said. "It’s multi-millions of dollars in revenue for the city and for businesses and so it is a big player economically in Charleston.”

Some businesses have closed forever and those that have survived had to let go of staff.

“We had a staff of close to 200," Hyman said. "We’re down to about 130. We have a significant amount of them – about 40 or 45 – that have been with me for 15 years, so I have no choice but to keep my doors open. I’m going to do it for them.”

Walking tours around the city only takes one person and Trouche says even that has been a struggle.

“I typically give six day’s worth of tours and many times twice a day. I’ve gotten to the point where I may be giving two or three tours in an entire week.”

Thankfully, there is hope. Business owners say tourism dollars are coming back as restrictions have been lifted and people are feeling more comfortable leaving home, especially on weekends. According to Erin Francis-Cummings, the president and CEO of Destination Analysts, research confirms that’s likely true.

“Just last week when we surveyed American travelers, one in five said they felt like people in their personal networks were traveling more. They feel like they’ve observed that,” Francis-Cummings said.

As we learn more about the virus and what can best protect us, Francis-Cummings says more people are feeling safe about traveling. However, if tourism businesses want to do well, she says they need to show that they care about the safety of their customers.

“If they have the protocols in place and people feel safe, they will get business.”

Francis-Cummings predicts there will be even more travelers once we have a vaccine. In the meantime, Robert says many are eager for another stimulus package from the government.

“Helping these businesses through the pandemic and getting back on their feet in our opinion is the most important thing,” Smith said.

Taking it day by day, business owners say they pray they’ll come out of this strong.

“With God’s good grace we’ll get out of this soon," Hyman said. "Come to Charleston and come to visit.”