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South Carolina hopes to lure foreign tourists

They stay longer and spend more money, travel experts say

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Vicki and James Smith are the kind of new visitors South Carolina is working hard to attract. They have never been to the state before, they are affluent and they have soft British accents.

The state's $15 billion tourism industry wants to draw more international travelers like them to sample everything from mountain vistas and sandy beaches to golf courses and Charleston's historic homes.

Tourism is South Carolina's largest industry, and international visitors are "an attractive segment of the market," said Chad Prosser, director of the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. "They tend to stay longer and spend more. And currently, the exchange rates are in their favor so it's a real bargain."

The Smiths, from Guernsey, England, spent most of two weeks at a spa on Hilton Head Island. But if all they wanted was a beach vacation, "it's a lot cheaper to go to Spain or someplace like that," James Smith pointed out.

To sample some of the area's other attractions, they took a detour south across state lines to nearby Savannah, Ga., and then drove up the coast to Charleston. Here visitors can take carriage rides through the city's Historic District, spend an afternoon at the South Carolina Aquarium or tour historic plantations like Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation along the Ashley River.

There are also boat rides to Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began and, in North Charleston, the H.L. Hunley, the Confederate submarine that was the first in history to sink an enemy warship.

Smith, a retired businessman, and his wife have visited the United States numerous times but it was their first visit to South Carolina.

"Everyone told us, who had been, 'That's lovely. Go and you'll enjoy it,' " said Vicki Smith, during an interview at the Charleston Place Hotel.

"The South has a mystique of its own," her husband added. "It's the first time we have been to the real South. We have been to Florida, but that isn't the real South."

Getting more foreign visitors to South Carolina depends on air service, said Brad Dean, president and chief executive officer of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

South Carolina's U.S. senators are working to get Myrtle Beach designated a port of entry, making it easier for visitors to fly directly to the city from abroad.

Myrtle Beach is known for T-shirt shops and waterslides, and it appeals to foreign tourists in other ways.

"Our best kept secrets are not only the abundance of golf, but Brookgreen Gardens — the sculpture garden," Dean said. "They are fascinated by American history."

Coastal destinations, instead of competing as they would for

American tourists, work together to market the state overseas.

"They're not going to come just to Charleston. They're going to come to Charleston and Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach," said Helen Hill, the executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

South Carolina attracted 32.5 million visitors last year. But only about 1 million were foreign visitors and of that number, about 750,000 were Canadians, who generally drive to the state as do Americans.

Of the rest, the largest number came from the United Kingdom, followed by Germany, France, Scandinavia and Ireland. Most had made previous trips to the United States visiting places like New York, Orlando or Los Angeles.

The state works to attract foreign visitors in the United States on their second or third visit, said Gary Edwards, managing director of Coastal South Carolina USA, the industry consortium promoting the state's coast abroad.

Foreign visitors spend about 10 days in the state, about twice what Americans do, Edwards said. About 20 percent of foreign visitors to the state were also making their first visit to the country drawn by the dozens of golf courses along the coast.

"Our culture, the whole deal of the South is what catches them — that sort of 'Gone With the Wind' feeling," Prosser said.

"German visitors like the interaction with nature," he added, and the pristine ACE Basin refuge south of Charleston and the Francis Marion National Forest north of the city are all draws.

There is also Southern hospitality.

"You do make us feel very welcome," Vicki Smith said, adding: "I would say you are warmer down here."

State lawmakers added $1 million more in this year's state budget for tourism marketing abroad.

But it has to be a joint effort, said Linn Lesesne, director of group sales for Charming Inns, which operates five historic inns in Charleston and another in Columbia.

"With my budget and my size, I really can't reach them alone," she said.

One of the company's properties, the John Rutledge House Inn was home to one of the signers of the Constitution and built in 1763.

European travelers seek out such properties although "ours are new compared to what they have in Europe," Lesesne said.