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A pandemic success story: State parks and their grateful visitors

24 Nov

A pandemic success story: State parks and their grateful visitors

State parks, with nature-kissed open spaces and ample room for social distancing, have benefited greatly from a weary public in need of a safe vacation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

People seeking outdoor activities and wide-open spaces have poured into Huntington Beach State Park, a jewel on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, and parks across the Palmetto State.

Revenue for South Carolina’s state parks have seen a resurgence as the public seeks safer and socially distant opportunities. Although South Carolina’s state parks were closed for most of March and April 2020 due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19, the lost revenue was quickly made up and totals have exceeded last year’s revenues from 24 percent to as much as 52 percent each month since.

“We closed down for a little over a month, which caused us a large revenue loss, but when we opened back up, we found that not only the customers who missed us came back, but also people who couldn’t go to the movies or bowling allies, all the people who couldn’t go to these other places, were looking for something else to do,” said Paul McCormack, director for the S.C. State Park Service. “So outdoor activities have become a great opportunity for them.”

Three miles of pristine beach, perfect for a leisurely stroll, await visitors of Huntington Beach State Park near Murrells Inlet. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Huntington Beach State Park, located in Murrells Inlet of Georgetown County, has numbers that reflect that same trend. Park Manager Brenda Magers said that visiting a state park corresponds well with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines of social distancing and being outdoors when socializing.

“There are many opportunities to do just that when you go to a state park,” Magers said. “Huntington Beach is certainly no exception to that!”

Another factor is that state parks are an affordable form of entertainment for the whole family, she added.

“At a time when many people have reduced hours at work and are suffering financial hardships, state parks offer an opportunity to do something that is very affordable.”

To that end, she noted that Friday, Nov. 27, which is the day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday, is the perfect time for more people to discover or rediscover state parks. All state parks will be waiving admission cost for the day.

“Nov. 27 is a free opportunity for people to sample state parks,” Magers said. “I hope people in this area will come see what Huntington Beach State Park has to offer and find out that it is well worth the price of admission.”

A picnic area at Huntington Beach State Park stands ready for visitors who are seeking outdoor activities. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

McCormack said this promotion, sponsored by Recreational Equipment Inc., encourages people to spend some time in the great outdoors.

“State parks are some of the most beautiful outdoor settings in South Carolina and are ideal places for family outings,” he said. “We open the gates to nearly 90,000 acres of natural beauty and cultural wonder, from the deep forests of the Blue Ridge to the state’s settlement site at Charles Towne Landing.”

Normally, admission would range from between $3 to $8 per person at most state parks. The Park Service is notifying the public of free admission on Nov. 27 via social media using the hashtags #OptOutside and #OptOutsideSC.

According to official numbers from the S.C. State Parks Service, total revenues for state parks in March 2020 was $794,900, compared to $3,476,900 in March 2019 (a 77 percent decrease) and $376,300 in April 2020, compared to $3,599,600 in April 2019 (an 89 percent decrease). But when the parks reopened, numbers rebounded and stayed well above last year’s totals.

The state parks’ total revenue was $5,542,400 in May 2020, compared to $4,045,200 in May 2019 (a 37 percent increase); $5,867,000 in June 2020, compared to $3,696,100 in June 2019 (a 59 percent increase); $5,207,300 in July 2020, compared to $4,195,700 in July 2019 (a 24 percent increase); $4,616,700 in August 2020, compared to $3,500,300 in August 2019 (a 32 percent increase); and $4,143,900 in September 2020, compared to $2,723,700 in September 2019 (a 52 percent increase).

The causeway offers views of the marsh on one side and a large pond on the other — both teeming with wildlife, from alligators, fish and flocks of birds. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Huntington Beach State Park’s revenue was $84,300 in March 2020, compared to $429,800 in March 2019 (an 80 percent decrease); and $77,800 in April 2020, compared to $494,400 in April 2019 (an 84 percent decrease). Then revenue was $694,500 in May 2020, compared to $560,200 in May 2019 (a 24 percent increase); $607,100 in June 2020, compared to $285,900 in June 2019 (a 112 percent increase); $612,900 in July 2020, compared to $591,900 in July 2019 (a 4 percent increase); $528,100 in August 2020, compared to $468,200 in August 2019 (a 13 percent increase); and $467,100 in September 2020, compared to $328,900 in September 2020 (a 42 percent increase).

McCormack explained that several years ago, the State Parks Service started a mission to become self-sufficient, so state parks could generate revenue to pay for their operations, which has also helped during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Last year, before the pandemic, was the first year we reached operational self-sufficiency, so essentially all the revenue we collect at our gates, through our programs, camping and retail, pays to operate the state parks,” McCormack said. “So we closed down for little over a month which caused us a large revenue loss, but when we opened back up we found that not only the customers who missed us came back, but also many more people were looking for something else to do.”

He said that with all the new campers and day trippers coming to the state parks, it has been an opportunity for park officials to introduce them to all the parks have to offer.

“We hope we are giving them that connection with nature that will become part of their everyday lives moving forward,” McCormack said. “If you are camping or staying in a cabin, you are by yourself with your family unit. Even on the beach on a busy weekend, you can spread out and stay away from people and rejuvenate.”

Magers said she has seen an increase in recreational vehicle campers coming to Huntington Beach State Park. In fact, the park recently placed second in the USA Today/10Best Contest for the Best State Parks for RV Camping. And the park was recently named one of America’s top spots for recreational vehicle enthusiasts.

Huntington Beach State Park has seen an increase in Recreational Vehicle camping during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

“The camping industry has reported that camper sales are up,” she said. “On this end of the industry, if they sell more campers, we will see more people camping. We have definitely been interacting with more first-time campers and visitors.”

Although Huntington Beach State Park, like other parks across the state, have cut some programs and events due to Covid-19, Magers said the increased visitation to the Murrells Inlet park has offset the loss of revenue from canceled park ranger-led wildlife tours and events like the annual Atalaya Haunted Castle/Fall Festival and An Atalaya Christmas, both shuttered because of the pandemic.

“What is taken away by not hosting programs and events is offset by increased admission to the park,” Magers said. “It is a million grains of sand versus large boulders.”

Huntington Beach State Park offers sea-breeze camping, the finest surf fishing South Carolina has to offer and is one of the top bird-watching sites on the East Coast of the U.S. It also features Atalaya, the picturesque, Moorish-style winter home of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, philanthropist and sculptor, respectively, who left the park and adjacent Brookgreen Gardens as their legacy. The state park is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Atalaya, originally the winter home of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, with its expansive courtyards, is a popular attraction at Huntington Beach State Park. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

There are 47 state parks in South Carolina. With more than 80,000 acres of protected lands stretching from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the sand dunes of the Atlantic Ocean, South Carolina state parks protect some of the most inviting natural, cultural and recreational destinations in America.

All visitors (over age 2) are required to wear a face mask in state park facilities that are either staffed by a park employee or is a place where the public congregates. These places include park offices and stores, restrooms, nature centers, etc. If you rent a facility such as a cabin or picnic shelter, you are encouraged to follow CDC and Department of Health and Environmental Control regulations for mask wearing and distancing.

For more information on state parks, visit SouthCarolinaParks.com. For more information about Huntington Beach State Park, visit https://southcarolinaparks.com/huntington-beach or call 843-237-4440.

By Clayton Stairs/tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce

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