Baha'i News -- Faith an untapped resource Posted on Sun, Jun. 09, 2002

Faith an untapped resource

By Johanna D. Wilson
The Sun News

No matter their faith, believers visiting the Grand Strand for religious events come because they can take care of God's business and hit the beach.

Religious tourism is, perhaps, a quiet and underappreciated segment of the Grand Strand's overall tourism market, but one which a tourism official estimates could be approaching 1 million visitors a year. Rarely is there an event like this weekend's Beachfest to show the numbers of people who will travel to worship.

But translate the numbers of religious-oriented visitors into millions of dollars spent on lodging, food and entertainment, and it becomes apparent why some pay attention to those who want to pray and play.

About 6 percent of the business at attractions in the Myrtle Beach area comes from religious groups, said Jean Ann Brakefield, vice president of the Myrtle Beach Area Convention Bureau, a division of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

"It's big, but not huge," Brakefield said.

Last year, about 61,000 people attended 18 religious-oriented events at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, said Bill Sigmon Jr., director of sales and marketing for the Myrtle
Beach Convention Center.

Those religious groups spent close to 24,000 nights in hotel rooms, which is about 10 percent of the total room nights for events at the convention center, Sigmon said.

"We definitely have a market here," Sigmon said. "That's why we have been working it. We recognize the value of religious meetings in this town. And it probably doesn't hurt us with the man upstairs to have all these functions here."

He added that, estimating conservatively, about $4.2 million was spent along the Grand Strand by the 18 groups.

At least one S.C. company hopes to cash in on the Grand Strand's potential for religious tourism.

A 6-year-old company based in Fort Mill called NarroWay Productions will have its first show Monday at the Forum Theater.

Michael Kimble, NarroWay's general manager, is counting on religious tourism to make his show, "Twenty Years Ago," a hit.

"We wanted to come to an area that was obviously a tourist destination," Kimble said. "And we felt Myrtle Beach is one of South Carolina's hottest tourist destinations."

The show is scheduled to run four nights a week for three months.

Whereas NarroWay is new to the Strand's religious tourism market, a Christian retreat in North Myrtle Beach has been attracting visitors since 1949.

Some come not only to pray and play, but to work as well.

Lynne Smith brought dozens of youth from Maranatha Baptist Church in Flat Rock, N.C., last week to do missionary work.

"The Grand Strand is such a ripe area," Smith said Wednesday.

Her group stayed a week at the Myrtle Beach Christian Retreat Center in North Myrtle Beach.

"There are so many people from the United States and Canada who are here," she said. "It's a great place to introduce Christ to people and still have fun in a clean way."

About 8,000 Christians visit the center every year, said the Rev. Henry Brock, its director.

Brock said the center gives religious groups package deals that include admissions to things such as area miniature golf courses.

Every day from June to August, between 300 and 500 campers worship at Lakewood Camping Resort, said Donald Perry, Lakewood president.

"Christian people like to be yoked together," Perry said.

On Friday, nearly 500 people from Campers on Mission, an organization that helps build churches in places of need, were at the campground.

Brakefield said the convention bureau's staff began attending the Religious Conference Management Association's annual meeting about 15 years ago in order to get a bigger piece of the religious tourism pie.

The annual event is a trade show at which religious leaders and event planners talk with tourism officials from across the nation. The meeting presents an ideal opportunity to sell the area to various religious groups, Brakefield and Sigmon said.

"We saw the enormous potential of the market," said Brakefield, adding that the convention bureau did a mailing to 13,000 churches in March hoping to capture more of the motor coach travel.

The religious tourism market isn't limited to Christians, said Imam Mikal Hasan, a Muslim leader who lives in Conway.

"There is a whole lot the Grand Strand offers," Hasan said. "There are restaurants, golf courses, the beach and amusement parks. I've heard Muslims visiting the Grand Strand talk about how kind and gentle the people are from this area."

Dian Stanfill, tour and travel manager for the Gatlinburg, Tenn., Department of Tourism, said being a well-known vacation area only ups the ante for religious-based groups.

"We are surrounded by natural beauty, and that appeals to religious groups that are looking for a more serene location," Stanfill said.

But natural beauty isn't the only thing that generates religious tourism.

Columbia expects up to 20,000 visitors every other year for a decade to attend the international convocation of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the first convention booked for the new arena at the University of South Carolina.

Officials estimate the meeting will generate more than $10 million a year for city businesses.

Not all religious gatherings are about big money, though.

Seven miles from Hemingway in Georgetown County, hundreds of people from numerous faiths come to PeaceFest, an annual event sponsored since 1986 by the Baha'i community and held at the Louis G. Gregory Baha'i Institute.

"It's just a big family reunion," said Laurie Cohen, assistant manager of Radio Baha'i, WLGI-FM, 90.9.

Ashby Ward, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks it would be great if the Grand Strand continues to grow as a hot spot for religious tourism.

"It could be a wonderful addition to our tourist economy," he said, "and I think we have everything we need to attract them."

Contact JOHANNA D. WILSON at 444-1768 or jwilson@thesunnews.com.


©Copyright 2002, The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, SC)

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