CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- A new South Carolina tourism season is approaching, and the director of the state tourism department predicts this is the year the $15 billion industry returns to pre-Great Recession levels.
"I do believe 2013 will be the year in which we catch up to where we were," said Duane Parrish, who leads the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
Parrish will share his thoughts with hospitality leaders from across the state Monday as the three-day Governor's Conference on Tourism and Travel opens in Columbia.
Parrish said in an interview that the industry has a lot of momentum entering the new season.
Revenue per available room — a key measure of tourism performance — was up almost 7 percent in the state during 2012, outperforming neighboring states and the rest of the country.
Parrish said South Carolina also is enjoying a tourism boost from worldwide television coverage of the PGA Championship on Kiawah Island last year and publicity from being voted Conde Nast Traveler Magazine's best tourist town in the world.
Economists estimated that the PGA tournament poured $92 million into the economy. In addition, Parrish said, Jet Blue begins service to Charleston from Boston and New York late next month.
Parrish added that he thinks gas prices will stay below $4 a gallon and even under $3 in some areas — important in a state where 80 of visitors arrive by driving.
During the Columbia conference, Geoff Freeman, chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association, will discuss the national travel picture and the effect of legislation on the industry.
The conference also offers tours. One will take attendees to the Riverbanks Zoo and the Columbia Museum of Art and focus on ways culture can attract visitors.
The second will explore the lure of what organizers call "authentic South Carolina" and allow attendees to visit the State Farmers Market and the University of South Carolina athletic facilities.
This year brings a new ad agency handling state tourism promotions and a new campaign to draw visitors to what officials call undiscovered areas of the state.
BFG Communications of Bluffton was tapped this month to promote the tourism industry with a contract worth as much as $57 million. For years, the contract had been handled by Greenville-based Leslie Advertising and its successor, the Bounce Agency.
In addition, a $2.5 million media campaign gears up this spring to attract visitors to rural areas away from such well-known tourist destinations as Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head.