Tourism solidified its place in South Carolina’s economy during the twentieth century, but people have long flocked to the Palmetto State. Numerous travel accounts from before the Civil War show that northerners enjoyed the sights and sounds of South Carolina. Near Charleston, northerners went to see the races, visited sites of the Revolutionary War, and wrote home that they had caught a glimpse of a “genuine” plantation. Charleston also served as the rail gateway to points west from 1830 to 1860, and many travelers saw the landscape between Charleston and present-day North Augusta from the windows of a train. Tourists marveled at the railroad’s inclined plane and stationary steam engine near Aiken. In Columbia, visitors hoped to meet the city’s elite and tour South Carolina College, particularly its famous library. Although travel in the upstate was rarer, natural sites such as Table Rock also drew visitors.

Tourism got a slow start after the Civil War. While some believed that Charleston would be a natural for attracting the convention trade, the hotel business in the city was wholly inadequate in the late nineteenth century. Charleston’s city council rejected the idea of hosting a national Confederate veterans reunion in 1896, but in 1899 Charleston did host the convention after the city quickly built an auditorium to accommodate eight thousand spectators, and local residents opened their homes when hotels were unable to handle the crowd.

In the 1920s and 1930s tourism took off in Charleston, coinciding with the growth of interest in preserving the city’s historic architecture. This required a delicate balance: city leaders pushed for modern buildings and infrastructure to serve the visitors, while historic preservationists fought to maintain the city’s buildings and charm that attracted travelers.

Before the creation of the United States Interstate Highway System in 1954, South Carolina served as a transportation corridor for tourists traveling from the Northeast and Midwest to Florida because of the state’s position between northern tourism origins and southern destinations. Major routes included U.S. Highways 1, 17, and 301, and these pathways provided intermediate destinations that had vehicular services, accommodations, food, and local handicrafts. Small towns were relatively uniformly distributed along the roadways and railroads and included a wide variety of locally owned tourist-oriented services, such as service stations, truck stops, motor courts, campgrounds, regional restaurants, retail stores, and community festivals.

Following World War II increased population, disposable income, mobility, and leisure time resulted in the rapid growth of tourists passing through and vacationing in the state. Interstate Highways 95, 85, 77, 26, and 20 greatly improved accessibility. Investments in accommodations, restaurants, retail outlets, golf courses, and entertainment–especially in the three coastal destinations of Myrtle Beach, Charleston, and Hilton Head Island–amplified the value of the state to visitors because travel time and distance to South Carolina were shorter than to Florida. The Palmetto State was also less expensive. Also of importance were long, unspoiled beaches and marshes; water-related activities such as swimming, sunbathing, boating, and excellent fresh and saltwater fishing; beautiful scenery; and a pleasant climate with warm, moist summers and moderate, dry winters.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, South Carolina was attracting thirty million tourists annually, of whom twenty-two percent originated within the state. The majority of out-of-state visitors came from North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Virginia.

The state’s forty-six counties have been divided into nine tourism regions by the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism for promotional materials, especially at eight Welcome Centers, as a method of enticing tourists to tour the entire state. For those who visit any of the nine tourism regions, shopping is the most highly ranked activity followed in order by visits to the ocean or the many lakes and rivers; visits to historical sites and museums; fishing, hunting, or hiking at state parks, state forests, or national wildlife refuges; attending festivals held throughout the state; and playing golf. South Carolina is known as a golfing paradise and had one of the country’s largest shares of the tourism golf market in 2001. By 2004 the state had approximately four hundred courses, with the largest concentration in the Grand Strand and a secondary cluster in and near Hilton Head Island.

In the 2002–2003 fiscal year tourism produced $9.4 billion in gross state product. Almost 340,000 individuals, or about twelve percent of the state’s total workforce, were employed by tourism, which made it the number one employer in the state. The substantial role that tourism played in South Carolina’s economy led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1999 to urge tourists to boycott South Carolina because of the Confederate flag’s presence on top of the State House.

As tourism has grown in South Carolina, the focus of the tourism industry has also embraced wider culture. Whereas in the early twentieth century promoters of Charleston emphasized a romanticized antebellum past, in the early twenty-first century tourists could encounter a richer African American history and culture. This expansion has brought new tensions: while expanding tourism has brought jobs and economic benefits to areas such as the Sea Islands, it has also presented challenges to preserving the natural and social environments.

Washburn, Meika R. “Resident Attitudes and Beliefs towards Sustainable Tourism on Edisto Island: An African American Residents’ Perspective.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 2004.

Yuhl, Stephanie Eileen. “High Culture in the Low Country: Arts, Identity and Tourism in Charleston, South Carolina, 1920–1940.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1998.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Tourism
  • Author
  • Keywords Charleston, Table Rock, United States Interstate Highway System in 1954, Palmetto State was also less expensive, richer African American history and culture
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 26, 2022
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