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New season starting for SC's now-$18B tourist industry with conference, other events

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COLUMBIA, S.C. - Tourism, which now pumps about $18 billion into the South Carolina economy, has recovered from the Great Recession and has been setting records in recent seasons. And the director of the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, Duane Parrish, says the trend should continue in 2014.

"I think it will be a great year for South Carolina," he told The Associated Press.

On Monday the Governor's Conference on Tourism and Travel gets underway on Hilton Head Island. Later the week brings the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston, the Myrtle Beach Marathon and other events as the season gears up.

Parrish said key tourism indicators including revenue per available lodging room, admissions tax revenues and state park revenues all set records in 2013. "I expect '14 to exceed '13 for a number of reasons," he said.

First gas prices are relatively low — below $3 a gallon in some places in the state. "I would expect prices to remain stable I have even heard talk of them coming down in some places," he said. That's important because 80 per cent of the visitors drive to South Carolina.

"Secondly, albeit it slow, the economy is improving and people are feeling a little bit better about travelling," Parrish added.

Parrish added a new trend is that people, tied to work all the time with smartphones and tablets, are now finding the need to get away completely. He says the cabins at Oconee State Park, with no TV, cell service or internet connections, are among the most popular in the state park system.

One topic of discussion at the Governor's Conference will be the state ad campaign to encourage tourists to less-visited areas in the state. The $2.5 million campaign touting "Undiscovered South Carolina" is designed to boost tourism in smaller towns such as Conway, with its river walk and historic district.

There also will be a session on the new state sign program for tourist and agricultural attractions along rural roads. The program, which started last year, allows such business to apply for directional signs similar to those directing visitors to services along interstate highways.

The signs have the state Parks, Recreation and Tourism or the Certified South Carolina Grown agriculture logos. To be eligible, businesses have to be located in a rural area, easily accessible from a paved highway, regularly open to the public and offer unique experiences.

The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition started back in 1983 with about 100 exhibitors and 5,000 attendees. Now each year about 40,000 visitors take in everything from sporting dog competitions to displays of wildlife art. The exposition now features about 500 artists and exhibitors.

The Myrtle Beach Marathon on Saturday attracts almost 10,000 runners competing in either the marathon, half-marathon or 5-K races.

That same day in Columbia, the boyhood home of President Woodrow Wilson opens after almost $4 million in renovations as a museum devoted to the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.

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