As more Americans get vaccinated, there finally is hope that a true recovery of the devastated U.S. economy and workforce is within sight. One industry of particular importance for South Carolina and the Lowcountry has been hit the hardest by far and will require creative measures to rebound: travel and tourism.
Fortunately, Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties have established diversified economies over the past decade. Even in the context of this impressive development, tourism remains a critical economic driver. In 2019, travel generated $9.7 billion in economic impact throughout our region, directly employed 40,000 residents and accounted for more than 20% of all sales.
The Charleston area’s tourism industry enjoyed incredible momentum entering 2020. Then everything changed. COVID caused the bottom to fall out of the U.S. tourism economy almost overnight. Travel and tourism spending nationwide fell by half a trillion dollars last year — 10 times the impact of 9/11. With other segments of the economy making a slow rebound, nearly 40% of all U.S. unemployment is in the leisure and hospitality sector. Locally, unemployment in hospitality and leisure exceeds 25%, three times the rate of any other sector in the Charleston area.
It is far from clear when the trend of the travel industry lagging behind the broader economic recovery can turn around on its own. In our region, this is especially worrisome for those who depend on business travel, groups and events.
One thing that has become clear over the past year is that so many industries and businesses across the Charleston area are dependent on, or at a minimum influenced by, the visitor industry. With Washington determined to provide aid until the economy can get moving on its own again — as evidenced by the $1.9 trillion relief package passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden last week — it makes sense to target assistance to parts of the economy that have the greatest needs and are the most crucial to an overall recovery. Travel and tourism, which supported employment for 1 in 10 Americans before the pandemic, surely should be high on that list.
That’s why our industry has rallied around a bipartisan bill called the Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act, recently introduced in both chambers of Congress.
The legislation contains the kind of smart, targeted tax incentives that would accelerate a travel recovery: a temporary business tax credit to revitalize business meetings, conferences and conventions; an individual tax credit to stimulate nonbusiness travel; a temporary entertainment business expense deduction to help entertainment venues and performing arts centers recover; and tax relief for restaurants and food and beverage companies to help restore food service jobs and strengthen the entire American food supply chain.
Original sponsors of the bill include both Democrats and Republicans from across the country, among them U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, a Republican who represents much of the South Carolina coastline north of the Santee River.
We support these measures for the good they will do to restore business and group travel, incentivize leisure visits, rebuild local jobs and stimulate our community’s overall pandemic recovery.
COVID has presented our industry, and our entire society, with the greatest challenge in recent memory. But an overall economic and jobs recovery will only be possible with a robust recovery for travel. We appreciate the support and actions of our elected officials to date, and we encourage them to consider every available avenue in the future to speed the turnaround of this cornerstone industry.
Helen Hill is the CEO of Explore Charleston (also known as the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau). Michael Tall is the chairman of Explore Charleston’s Board of Governors.