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Hey, where did all the own-town tourists go?
By Jennifer Johnston
Jan 30, 2013 - 8:39:57 AM

Patriot's Point offered a weekend discount in
January inviting visitors to "Pay-What-You-Can"
to experience the USS Yorktown, as well as the USS Clamagore submarine, Vietnam Support Base, Cold War Memorial, and Medal of Honor Museum.

The now-defunct Be a Tourist in Your Own Town
program served as a boost to business, and resident exploration, in the month of January
for 17 years.

The Charleston Area Convention and Visitors
Bureau's "Charleston Explorers" program gets kids
excited about sight-seeing in the Holy City.

You may have noticed a subtle, recent change in the migratory pattern of an animal indigenous to the Lowcountry. It is not the beloved loggerhead turtle, or the bashful egret, or even the bewildering fox squirrel. It is the creature known as the local, and its pace seems to have slowed a bit this January. It is not running from one historic site to the next, grabbing a two-for-one meal in between, and hollering to its offspring to ‘keep up for goodness sake.’ And it seems to have shed its fanny pack.

We can only attribute this shift to the absence of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau’s (CVB) “Be a Tourist in Your Own Town” program, which ran for 17 years and was discontinued in 2012. During its run, the program offered locals a way to visit attractions throughout the tri-county area for a deep discount. With the purchase of a Be a Tourist pass, which could only be obtained from a CVB visitor center with proof of residency, the very people who reside in the Charleston area could behave like awe-struck visitors for the entire month of January. For the last ten years, the passes sold for $20 per individual or $50 for a family up to four people, and granted free one-time admission to dozens of top Lowcountry attractions and discounts at over 20 restaurants.

It was a popular program of the CVB, and boosted receipts for area businesses during what historically has been the slowest month of the year for Charleston tourism. "It had remained steady, but then pass sales hit a bit of a decline the last two years,” reports CVB Deputy Director Perrin Lawson. He attributes this drop to several things.

One is the advent of such discounts sites as Groupon and LivingSocial, which began offering discounts at many of the same venues throughout the year. Be a Tourist also overlapped Charleston Restaurant Week, making the dining discounts on the pass somewhat redundant.

"The program was also successful because everyone was agreeing to do it in same way,” recalls Perrin, “with offers running during regular business hours and open to all areas of attractions." But where some places were closing for part of the month to undergo renovations or altering their hours to compensate for slowed volume, Lawson states, "It created some real challenges." For example, The Middleton Place House Museum closed for annual maintenance from January 22 through February 1 this year, taking advantage of what is typically a sluggish time for tours.

But Charlestonians need not put their cameras and sensible walking shoes into long-term storage just yet. As an alternative to the program, locals will find that sight-seeing faves are offering their own programming, with various discounts and membership packages. "And the great thing about what the attractions are doing now is running during other times of year,” Perrin confirms, “so it's not limited to just January when the weather is bad." With the explosion of business-utilized social media, many of these businesses are making folks aware of offerings via Facebook, often on a daily basis. Lawson says the best thing to do is to be aware by way of local print and online media. But keep the CVB website handy, too; it's a great starting point.

A particularly great spot to point and click is on the CVB’s “Charleston Explorers” link. Here, families can find instructions on an incentive, admittedly designed for visitors but totally open to locals, designed to get “kids of all ages” to experience all that Charleston has to offer. Free passports can be obtained at any of the five Charleston area visitor centers, and participants then enter a unique number from the passbook into their Smartphone or home computer. At each “Explorers” attraction they visit, hometown tourists get a passport stamp and log the stop into the site online. After making the rounds, participants get a prize; the Elite Explorer level is awarded with a new iPod Touch!

But there are those who still have their heart set on sprinting through the Top City in the World, Amazing Race-style, during the dog days of winter. For these locals, many hot spots are still honoring the spirit of Be a Tourist. During the month of January, Magnolia Place offered two-for-one garden admission, and Drayton Hall gave away a free adult admission to its Facebook Friends. Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum held a Pay-What-You-Can promotion the weekend of January 7-8; visitors were invited to pay a fraction of the regular ticket cost, or if unable to afford any entrance fee, the maritime museum allowed "guest" entries at no charge.

For those looking to score Chucktown discounts and plan stay-cations throughout the year, the CVB and Charleston Explorer websites offer links to a rotating roster of specials and coupons on dining, activities, and lodging. "Our site is great for telling people what is available," Lawson explains, but asks residents to keep in mind that it is not geared toward local offers since it's set up more to assist visitors to Charleston. Roger that, Deputy Lawson. And we’ll still be sure to keep a light jacket and DASH trolley map handy.

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