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After bold predictions of “double digit growth” from S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley’s tourism czar, the Palmetto State’s tourism economy failed to live up to expectations last year.

According to data published by the S.C. Department of Parks Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT), occupancy rates for South Carolina hotels ticked up by just 2.3 percent in 2011 – compared to a 4.4 percent increase nationally. Meanwhile revenue per available room (or RevPAR – the key tourism metric) rose by only 5.3 percent in South Carolina compared to an 8.2 percent jump nationwide.

By any account these are disappointing numbers – particularly after growth in South Carolina’s tourism economy outpaced the rest of the nation in 2010.

Even more disappointing? Four years after the onset of the “Great Recession,” South Carolina still hasn’t made up the ground it lost during the recent (ongoing?) economic downturn.

In 2007, South Carolina’s occupancy rate was 58.8 percent and its RevPAR was $51.31. Last year, the occupancy rate was 54.8 percent and RevPAR was $47.91. Both of those figures trail behind the national tourism “rebound.”

SCPRT is slated to receive $70 million in the record-setting state budget approved last month by the S.C. House of Representatives – an increase of $10 million over the FY 2010-11 budget. Of that total, $30 million comes from the state’s general fund. Millions more tax dollars are spent on tourism at the local level – with the local “pro-business” groups effectively bribing state and local lawmakers to support new tax hikes to fund their scams.

We’ve stated repeatedly that every penny of this money is a waste – and that tourism should be responsible for its own marketing just like any other industry.

“Taxpayers are getting roughly the same return on investment from tourism marketing that we got from ‘beach renourishment,’ in which tens of millions of tax dollars were literally dumped into the sea,” we wrote last September.

Haley’s SCPRT director is once again projecting double digit growth for 2012. Let’s hope he’s right this time … although the added taxpayer investment in this agency clearly produced less-than-stellar returns a year ago.

In the coming days, FITS will be unveiling a pair of pro-free market, pro-tourism reforms that we believe will restore the strength of this industry  while weaning it from government dependence.

Stay tuned …