Health experts cautious of continued travel even as tourism numbers remain low

Health experts cautious of continued travel even as tourism numbers remain low

COVID-cation

Ruta Smith file photo

Hotel occupancy, one of the best gauges of tourism in Charleston, is down roughly 30 percent from previous years

Coronavirus case numbers are down from recent months — but so is Charleston tourism. 

“Hotel occupancy is probably one of the primary metrics,” said Perrin Lawson, deputy director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). “Hotel occupancy is right around 48 percent … It’s probably down roughly 30 percentage points.”

But even as they come in fewer numbers and the CVB continues marketing to potential tourists from afar, public health experts are still wary to recommend travel during the pandemic. Kathleen Cartmell, a professor at Clemson University, said when people vacation in heavily populated areas, it can increase the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading. 

“I think the most serious examples of that have been when lots of people descended on S.C. beaches this summer, and it seems like many of them took COVID back to their families and friends back home,” she said.

Although COVID-19 numbers have fluctuated a bit in recent weeks, case counts remain far below the highs reached in July. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control announced 543 new cases on Monday. Aug. 17 only saw 439 new cases. The single-day high for new cases came on July 19 with 2,335.

On Aug. 14, Dr. Brannon Traxler with DHEC noted there was a four-week downward trend in cases, but he said it’s possible this is because of a decrease in testing. “We are cautiously optimistic about this trend because the daily number of cases alone doesn’t paint the whole picture of where we are as a state.”

Cartmell recommends that vacationers go somewhere more remote while still practicing preventative measures. Face masks, social distancing and practicing hand hygiene, you might have heard, can “go a long way in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” she said.

Danielle Scheurer, chief quality officer for the Medical University of South Carolina, said there’s no correct answer, but travelling during a pandemic is still considered “risky.” 

“You certainly don’t want to travel to an area where the prevalence is higher than where you currently live,” Scheurer said. “Even traveling to an area of lower prevalence carries some risk because you have to be able to get there.” 

She added that traveling is a risk that each individual or family needs to take into consideration. Scheurer also believes that following standard preventative measures will reduce the possibility of transmitting or being infected with COVID-19.

Charleston’s Visitors Bureau is attempting to keep tourists informed on the local rules, including the ordinances that require masks worn in public places and restaurant capacity slashed. 

“There is a concern over making sure everyone does what the CDC and DHEC have asked and certainly complies with the ordinances in the various communities that make up the Charleston area,” Lawson said.

If COVID-19 is not kept under control, he added, “We unfortunately are not going to see much of an improvement in our industry and by extension many others.”

Asked how tourism will rebound from the pandemic, Lawson said the visitors bureau has shifted their marketing to “dry markets” — places that are six-to-eight hours away. “The biggest thing we can do is make sure that South Carolina on the whole and the Charleston region in particular does everything it can to reduce the rate of COVID cases,” he said. “You can see a direct correlation between an increase in reported cases and how visitation goes.”

Cancellations of large gatherings such as Spoleto Festival USA and the Cooper River Bridge Run eliminated some of the reasons why visitors would travel to Charleston. Lawson said the CVB is working with some of those event planners for next year’s festivities, but whether they happen is up to the organizers. “If they decide to proceed, we certainly will do everything we can that we would typically do to support them,” he said. 

Lawson has an optimistic view of the local tourism industry’s future, believing they will make “steady, consistent progress to getting back to normal.” 



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