published Sunday, February 16th, 2014

South Carolina capital vies for tourists

A jogger and her dog run across a bridge at the Columbia Riverfront Park in Columbia, S.C.
A jogger and her dog run across a bridge at the Columbia Riverfront Park in Columbia, S.C.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    The Horseshoe is located on the campus of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. For years, South Carolina’s capital was known mainly to visitors as the seat of state government and the home of the University of South Carolina. But in recent years the area’s varied attractions have been marketed as part of tourism campaign that the area is “Famously Hot.”
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

South Carolina’s most popular tourist destinations include Charleston’s Historic District and Myrtle Beach. But now its capital city Columbia is redoubling efforts to attract visitors as it markets itself as “Famously Hot.”

Columbia has been best-known for years simply as the seat of state government and home to the University of South Carolina, says Kim Jamieson, spokeswoman for the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism.

“We are trying to change that mindset that people have about Columbia,” Jamieson says. “It’s a challenge but it’s exciting to be able to change that perception.”

She says things began changing a few years ago. Today there’s a marketing approach promoting the region as “Famously Hot,” which Columbia summers certainly are, away from the state’s cool mountain regions and beach sea breezes.

“It is the new Southern hot spot and that is something we have carried through with our branding,” she says.

Columbia’s Riverbanks Zoo, the Columbia Museum of Art, the Congaree Riverwalk and nearby Congaree National Park are all attractions the area promotes.

The boyhood home of Woodrow Wilson is in Columbia and the historic site reopens next month after almost $4 million in renovations.

The South Carolina State Museum is located in an old 1893 textile mill.

Later this year the museum opens “Windows to New Worlds,” an addition including, among other attractions, an observatory, planetarium, theater and a gallery of historic telescopes. Museum officials expect the new features to result in an additional 75,000 visitors a year.

The Columbia 63 effort has sponsored a series of events commemorating the civil rights movement. Markers noting key Columbia events will be unveiled this year on Main Street.

The marketing effort also promotes the city’s food, shopping and entertainment offerings along Main Street, the Congaree Vista and in Five Points near the university campus.

The effort is working and the area now draws an estimated 1 million visitors a year, a number Jamieson says is probably conservative.

A study by the U.S. Travel Association for the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism shows that in 2012, domestic travelers spent almost $572 million in Richland County, where Columbia is located.

That was fifth among counties statewide and represented about 5 percent of the South Carolina total. About 6,100 people in the county were employed in tourism.

By contrast in Horry County, where Myrtle Beach is located, domestic travelers spent $3.5 billion, almost a third of the state total. Horry is the state’s top tourism county and almost 38,000 people there make a living in the industry.

Jamieson says Columbia faces the same challenges being near Charleston and Myrtle Beach as other towns near big tourist destinations like Orlando and New York.

“We’re not so far off the map so people don’t know where we are but we also have to make sure people are aware and we want to make sure to work to continuously to entice them,” she says.

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