Why South Carolina Attracts So Many Visitors

Golf, festivals, beaches and parks make the state a popular destination.

Cary Estes
On Tuesday, April 24, 2018 - 06:00
South Carolina

South Carolina might be small in size (40th in the nation), but the state is overflowing with things to do. From outdoor recreation to pristine beaches to a diverse array of festivals to championship-level collegiate sports, there is something for nearly every taste in the Palmetto State. That is why South Carolina’s tourism industry brings in more than $20 billion a year.

Let’s begin with golf. South Carolina certainly did. The state is credited with developing America’s first true golf course, in 1786 in Charleston. Now there are more than 350 courses throughout the state, and many of the venues are of such high quality that Golf Digest has ranked South Carolina one of the five best golfing states in the country.

“There’s mountain golf, beach golf, all kinds of golf. And it’s all within about a five-hour drive,” says Biff Lathrop, senior director of the South Carolina Golf Association. “The quality is great, and the amount of courses we have is just incredible.”

Golf generates more income than any other single entertainment or recreation activity in the state, according to a 2015 report by the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT). The report notes that South Carolina’s golf courses have a total economic impact of $2.7 billion in output and sales, and are responsible for creating more than 33,000 jobs.

The highlight of the golf season is the annual RBC Heritage PGA Tour event at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island. Lathrop says the tournament, which has been held for the past 48 years, “is more of a cocktail party with a golf tournament going on.” The 2017 winner was South Carolina native Wesley Bryan, the latest golfer from the state to become a PGA Tour regular, whose numbers also include former U.S. Open winners Dustin Johnson and Lucas Glover.

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A Walk in the Woods or on the Beach

The landscape in South Carolina is as diverse as the activities. There is the Appalachian mountain wilderness of the upstate region, with cold creeks and waterfalls; the old-growth hardwoods and pine forests of the midland, which blaze with color each fall; and the beautiful beaches along the Atlantic Ocean, from the tourist mecca of Myrtle Beach to the remote calm of Isle of Palms Beach.

These regions are connected by 47 state parks that offer cabins, motel rooms, 3,000 campsites and more than 300 miles of hiking and riding trails.

“There are venues that support a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities like hiking, biking, freshwater and saltwater fishing, nature observance and camping,” says SCPRT communication director Dawn Dawson-House. “And they’re all just a few hours’ drive from each other.”

Dawson-House says highlights of the park system include Table Rock, which has the state’s tallest mountain; Hunting Island, site of the state’s only lighthouse open to the public; Jones Gap, with hikes to several waterfalls, as well as the scenic Middle Saluda River; and Edisto Beach, which provides public access to one of the largest undeveloped estuaries along the Atlantic coast.

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All the State is a Stage

Festival fans have plenty of reasons to enjoy South Carolina. Some of the most popular fests include Greenville’s Fall for Greenville Festival, the Charleston Film Festival and Crimson Screen Horror Film Fest in Charleston, the South Carolina Peach Festival in Gaffney, the Lowcountry Oyster Festival in Mount Pleasant, and the Brew Ha Ha craft beer festival in Anderson.

The biggest event of all is Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA, which attracts more than 70,000 people over 17 days each spring for diverse performing arts shows by world-renowned artists. With more than 150 performances held at approximately a dozen venues throughout the city, Spoleto generates an economic impact of $42.7 million.

“We really kind of take over the city,” says Jessie Bagley, Spoleto’s director of marketing and public relations. “In 17 days, people can experience more arts than they might see throughout the rest of the year, certainly as far as variety is concerned. We have theater, dance, opera and all different types of music, from orchestral to bluegrass. You name it and we’ve probably presented it over the years.

“Since its founding in 1977, Spoleto has really shaped the cultural attractions for the state. South Carolina has seen quite a few festivals start since then. And the great thing is that it’s not just one specific type of festival. There’s something for everyone’s interest. That draws people into the state from all parts of the country, but it’s also something the locals look forward to year after year.”


Cary Estes is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Ala.