Brace for busy beaches and roads along the Grand Strand this long July Fourth weekend.
Travelers are expected to flock to the Grand Strand for the holiday, with Myrtle Beach the top destination of AAA Carolinas members, the travel club said. Grand Strand lodging properties are expected to be between 90 percent and 95 percent full this weekend and next week, which are traditionally among the busiest times for the beach all summer, officials say.
"I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised and busy," said Gary Loftus, director of Coastal Carolina University's Center for Economic and Community Development. "We are doing very well. Things are picking up here at the beach."
That translates into congested roads, packed parking lots and full beaches - traffic that pleases local business owners and puts safety officials on alert.
"July Fourth is the halfway point for our summertime travel," said Lance Cpl. Sonny Collins with the S.C. Highway Patrol, which will have additional troopers on duty through the weekend. "We expect the beach routes to be extremely busy on this July Fourth, as it is every year."
AAA has seen more interest in traveling this weekend, with hotel bookings in the Carolinas up 12 percent - even though prices are up 13 percent - and AAA TripTik route mapping services up 5 percent from May last year, AAA Carolinas said Wednesday. About 3,000 of those transactions were for trips to Myrtle Beach - the most popular destination among AAA Carolinas members for this weekend, AAA Carolinas spokesman Brendan Byrnes said.
"Starting Thursday evening, you are going to see an influx of people," he said.
About 485,000 S.C. residents are expected to travel 50 miles or more away from home for the holiday this weekend, about 3 percent more than last year, according to AAA Carolinas. Charleston; Asheville, N.C.; Atlanta; and Orlando also are popular destinations for S.C. travelers, AAA said.
With the holiday falling on Monday, the long weekend likely will entice more folks to travel, said Hatton Gravely, spokeswoman for The Market Common. She expects a busy weekend at the complex, in part because of the holiday and the Sons of Italy ltalian Festival there Saturday and Sunday.
"It's always a fantastic weekend for us," Gravely said "Every year we've grown."
Declining gas prices in recent weeks and improved consumer optimism are fueling the increases in travel, AAA says.
A gallon of regular unleaded in South Carolina is going for an average $3.29, down from the peak of $3.75 on May 12, AAA says. Still, that's higher than this time last year, when a gallon in South Carolina went for an average $2.52.
In Myrtle Beach, gas is going for an average $3.29, down from $3.52 a month ago but up from $2.50 a year ago, according to FuelGaugeReport.com.
Charleston has the state's most expensive gas, at $3.37 a gallon, while Spartanburg has the state's cheapest average price at $3.22.
Gas prices are about to tick up in North Carolina. The state's gas tax is set to increase 2.5 cents Friday, bringing the tax to 35 cents a gallon.
The decrease in gas prices in South Carolina is one aspect fueling business at properties owned by Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc., including Broadway at the Beach, spokeswoman Lei Gainer said in an email.
"There are clearly more people in town this week and we expect more for the long July Fourth holiday," she said. "All of our projects have experienced an increase in business not only in the past several days, but since March have showed positive gains. We think that the decrease in gas prices and pent up demand for quality family time in addition to goods and services have helped to bring more people to the beach."
About 458,000 S.C. residents will travel in their own vehicle this weekend, while 23,500 will fly to their destinations, AAA said.
AAA urges drivers to be careful because July Fourth is the most dangerous holiday of the year nationally. Last year, six people died in traffic crashes in South Carolina during the July Fourth weekend, AAA says.
Along the Grand Strand, congestion is expected along U.S. 378, U.S. 17, U.S. 501 and U.S. 701 in addition to Ocean Boulevard. Drivers should give themselves plenty of travel time and, when possible, use less-traveled roads such as S.C. 31 and S.C. 22, officials said.
"If you're going to be on the road please allow yourself extra time when you go out to eat or to any attraction because of the extra traffic," Collins said. "We certainly don't need impatience on the roadway because impatience will certainly lead to collisions."
Tourism trackers expect more busy weeks through July and probably August, though that's a ways out to predict.
"We are looking at a pretty decent summer," Loftus said.
In the Carolinas, the number of travelers is picking up, rivaling the numbers in 2005 although it's still off from the peak in 2007, Byrnes said.
"We are teetering closer and closer to pre-recession levels," he said. "It's positive news for the economy."