Grand Strand rated one of worst beaches by National Geographic

A panel of 340 tourism authorities has ranked the Grand Strand among the least sustainable coastal destinations in the world, according to a report by National Geographic Traveler magazine.

The Grand Strand was listed as the eighth worst out of the 99 destinations rated. The area tied with three other destinations in Vietnam, Lebanon and Spain.

The report comes after a string of positive ratings from national travel media so far this year. In August, National Geographic ranked Myrtle Beach as having the third best boardwalk in the United States.

"We had the worst coastal destination but they said we had a third best boardwalk in the nation," said Mayor John Rhodes of Myrtle Beach. "You praise one side but you criticize the other."

Earlier this year, travel website TripAdvisor listed Myrtle Beach as the top beach destination in the country and USA Today ranked the area as a Top 5 Affordable Destination.

The latest National Geographic ranking is based on stewardship and integrity of a destination, and the survey of experts was conducted by National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations. The results appeared in the November/December issue of National Geographic Traveler.

The destinations were rated on the following criteria: environmental and ecological quality, social and cultural integrity, condition of historic buildings and archaeological sites, aesthetic appeal, quality of tourism management and outlook for the future.

The report criticizes the area's over-development, with one critic calling it, "the definition of unsustainable." But state parks in the area are worth visiting, it said.

Rhodes said he agrees that the city has built more hotels than it needed, but that's being corrected as the economy and business picks up. The experts are mostly academics and travel writers and don't understand how the resort business works, he said. The area had an 8 percent rise in hotel occupancy this summer and is the envy of the travel industry, Rhodes said.

Individual comments made by the experts were kept anonymous although the names of some panelists are listed in the report, including academics, travel journalists and consultants. One comment states:

"A tourism disaster. After my first visit, I vowed never to return. Development is rampant and feels out of control. The quality of attractions is terrible. Uber-consumerism is everywhere. However, the region around Myrtle Beach has lovely state parks, beach areas and some small villages. If I were to ever be coaxed back to the region, that is where I would spend all of my time."

Brad Dean, president and chief executive of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said he's skeptical of the findings of a survey that keeps comments anonymous.

"A true academic or expert wouldn't be ashamed to put their name with their opinion," he said.

The National Geographic report stated the comments were kept anonymous so that experts would give objective opinions.

The survey wasn't all bad, Dean said, and does mention that the beaches are clean and that there's affordable retail. The comments referred negatively to cheap T-shirt shops and miniature golf in Myrtle Beach.

"The reasons they chide us are some of the very reasons some visitors come here," Dean said.

Some conservationists may have preferred if nothing were built here, but that would leave no room for business, Dean said.

Mistakes have been made with past developments, but Myrtle Beach is more sustainable than other South Carolina destinations, such as the Hilton Head Island area, which were not in the ranking, said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League. The Hilton Head area has less sustainable roads and more past problems with pollution, he said.

Too much has been built too close to the ocean along the Grand Strand, but the true test for the area is if it develops sustainably in the future, Beach said. Instead of pursuing large road projects such as Interstate 73 or new roads for the Southern Evacuation LifeLine, existing roads should be improved, he said. Because building has been mostly halted because of the poor economy, lawmakers should take time to revisit zoning rules and ensure that developments aren't built that would affect waterways or other sensitive areas, he said.

"It's a challenge to Myrtle Beach to prove them wrong," Beach said.