Myrtle Beach on Verge of Getting Direct Flights to West Virginia

The flights on a 122-seat Boeing 737 would start this summer, if the board approves. A round-trip flight would cost about $200.


Myrtle Beach could be on the verge of getting direct flights to Charleston, W.Va.

The board of Yeager Airport in Charleston will meet Wednesday to consider adding the direct flights through Aviation Advantage, an Atlanta-based management company that contracts with airlines to fly its routes.

The flights on a 122-seat Boeing 737 would start this summer, if the board approves. A round-trip flight would cost about $200, said Rick Atkinson, Yeager Airport's director.

The connection, which would run during the summer only, could be a boon for the Grand Strand's tourism industry. West Virginia is one of the Grand Strand's top feeder markets, ranking 14th in information requests last year.

"It is a very solid market for us," said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

Aviation Advantage's executive is familiar to the Grand Strand. Cary Evans, the company's executive vice president and chief operating officer, used to be involved with Jet Express, which flew from Myrtle Beach in 1998. The business folded, and the city of Myrtle Beach was never repaid the $790,000 it lent to Jet Express for marketing.

Evans started talking with Grand Stranders about a direct flight to Charleston in 2003.

Atkinson says he's gotten frequent requests for the direct flights. He admitted he's vacationed on the Grand Strand regularly, and his parents retired to Brunswick County, N.C.

Other than West Virginia, "the most popular place for people to go is Myrtle Beach," Atkinson said. "In West Virginia, it is just 'the beach.' That's what the 'the beach' means - the Grand Strand."

Direct flights could help boost the number of long weekend trips, Atkinson and Dean said.

The Yeager airport board scheduled the special meeting this week just to consider the flights. It wanted to act quickly so officials can promote the flights and have them in place by Memorial Day.

Take a trip to Mars

Pretty soon tourists can get a closeup of Mars while in Myrtle Beach.

"Mars: The Search for Life" will be this year's new exhibit at Ripley's Aquarium, with a mid-March opening planned.

The 2,400-square-foot exhibit will include a model of the planet, history of it and tidbits such as what a person would weigh on Mars. The exhibit replaces the Titanic show, which closed Feb. 21 after a two-year run.

The aquarium typically brings a new themed exhibit every year. The popularity of the Titanic kept it around an extra year, General Manager Peter MacIntyre said.

Florida tourism thrives

Hurricanes didn't keep travelers from visiting Florida in record numbers last year.

About 85.8 million people visited the Sunshine State in 2005, Gov. Jeb Bush announced last week. That marks a 7.8 percent increase from 2004 and represents the first time the annual visitor number surpassed 80 million, according to Visit Florida, the state's main tourism promoter.

About 944,500 people work in the tourism industry in Florida, earning a combined $15.4 billion.

Those numbers dwarf the statistics for South Carolina, where, like Florida, tourism is the top industry.

Last year, about 32.5 million people visited South Carolina. About 214,900 people worked in the S.C. hospitality industry this past summer, up 3.7 percent over the previous summer.

Dean to lead coalition

Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, will serve for the next two years as chairman of the S.C. Travel and Tourism Coalition.

The coalition is a statewide group most known around here for funding a study on late school starts done by Coastal Carolina University in 2004.

The group hasn't done much else. Dean envisions the group, which has 50 members, tackling issues related to the tourism industry. "This thing is going to be more proactive as opposed to just talking about what we've done," Dean said.

The coalition should lobby for more marketing dollars and take a stand on issues such as property tax reform, said Mickey McCamish, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday and a coalition member.

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