COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCBD)- The South Carolina tourism industry is recovering after taking a big hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study by the University of South Carolina.

According to the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism (SCPRT), tourism generated $24.4 billion in 2019, but S.C. lost an estimated $6 billion in visitor spending in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. SCPRT predicts a rebound in tourism in 2021, with about a 25% increase in revenue from 2020.

In order to better understand the tourism trends in the state, USC’s Insights Lab reviewed more than 200,000 relevant postings online between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30, 2021, including from news reports, blogs, forums, and social media platforms.

One main takeaway from the study is that South Carolina’s famous beaches are dominating online conversation. In looking at popular leisure activities, SC beaches were mentioned in 43% of all conversations that mentioned a specific activity. Of South Carolina’s 12 best beaches (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report), Myrtle Beach was the most talked about with 45,000 mentions, followed by Hilton Head and Kiawah Island.

As for what people like about Myrtle Beach, the beach topped the list of mentioned activities, followed by golf, fishing, and boating.

Charleston was the second most talked-about tourist destination, bringing in more than 29,000 mentions. Beaches were the most popular topic in Charleston, as well as boating, cultural tourism, and fishing.

Insights Lab indicates cultural tourism refers to an interest in historic sites such as plantations and the old slave market. The study found that cultural tourism in South Carolina is a growing trend, with people being particularly interested in Civil War history and what life was like in the South during that time.

As evidenced by the word cloud (left), interest in Gullah-Geechee heritage and culture is on the rise. The Gullah-Geechee, descendants of enslaved African people, are known for their crafts, food, and a creole language that is spoken nowhere else in the world. Charleston is home to several landmarks that make up the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, including Charles Pinckney Historical Site and McLeod Plantation. USC Insights Lab notes that ‘Gullah-Geechee’ is not found on similar word clouds for 2019 and 2020.

The survey also looked at conversations about Hilton Head, Columbia, and Greenville. Conversations about Hilton Head trended the same as with Myrtle Beach and Charleston as beaches, golfing, and fishing were the most popular activities. Non-coastal cities like Columbia and Greenville had fewer mentions in general on social media but the most mentioned activities in Columbia were Riverbanks Zoo and Lake Murray, while Greenville’s most mentioned activity was camping/hiking.

Lastly, USC Insights Lab used artificial intelligence to analyze sentiments about South Carolina tourism and found that it was generally positive. Most negative sentiments related to personal experiences or concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

 “In working on this report over the last year, I have been impressed with the many positive things that are being said about tourism in South Carolina,” Insights Lab analyst Karena Abrams said.   “It’s not difficult to understand why South Carolina tourism is so successful — and so important to the state’s economy.”