Hotel prices in Myrtle Beach have skyrocketed this summer, far surpassing their lows for 2020 and even making pre-pandemic rates look like a cheap deal.

For much of July, the average daily rate for a hotel room in the Grand Strand — $235-$260 — is anywhere from 15% to 30% higher than 2019, before the pandemic, and up to 70% higher than 2020, according to data from the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and Coastal Carolina University.

The higher cost of hotel rooms in Myrtle Beach compared to previous years strikes at one of the region’s most appealing qualities for vacationers — affordability.

The average daily rate for a hotel room the week ending in July 24 was $257, 67% higher than 2020 and 29% higher than 2019. The high rates come as Myrtle Beach hotel occupancy has stayed near 85% — just short of what tourism leaders often consider to be “full occupancy” — for much of June and July.

“The days of rock-bottom prices are gone,” Myrtle Beach Hospitality Association CEO Stephen Greene said. “Everything in relation to travel is higher than it was when we were going through the pandemic, and I think it has to be. That was so low that we were having a hard time, you know, keeping the doors open.”

Vacation rentals, like Airbnb, in Myrtle Beach are more expensive than hotels right now: averaging $336 per night for the week of July 18-24, according to the chamber. But home rentals, on average, have three times as many bedrooms as hotels, according to CCU’s data.

The cost of non-hotel vacation rentals has stayed somewhat static compared to 2020, when rates went up sharply in the region as Airbnbs and other rentals gained popularity because people sought to avoid hotel crowds during the pandemic. Comparable data for 2019 is not available.

What’s driving up hotel prices?

Greene said the high cost of hotels right now is another symptom of inflation across the American economy.

One of the biggest factors driving the price increases in Myrtle Beach has been the rising cost of labor.

Hospitality businesses for months have struggled to hire — and hold on to — enough workers to keep their businesses functioning. Restaurants have had to leave tables empty, many hotels have only rented out 80-90% of their rooms, and stores and service businesses have had to reduce their hours or days open to prevent employee burnout.

That struggle to find enough labor has led employers to offer higher and higher wages or sign-on bonuses in the hope of attracting new workers and getting them to stay. The cost of those wages is then passed onto customers in the form of costlier stays.

Not only has labor increased the base cost of running a hotel, but some places have had to deal with supply issues as well.

Myrtle Beach City Council member Jackie Hatley, who owns the Sea Dip Motel & Condos, said she’s struggled to find enough towels and linens for her rooms. Not only is there a shortage of the linens themselves, but she said her cleaning service has had to charge more because the cost of cleaning supplies has gone up as well. Right now, she only has about 85-90% of her rooms available on weekends since she’s still short several housekeeping, maintenance and front desk staff.

“The demand is quite high, but we don’t have our complete supply online,” said Greene, of the Hospitality Association. “When you go to your favorite restaurant, you’re going to see lines wrapped around the building, but you’re (also) going to see sections that are still blocked off because we don’t have staffing.”

Hatley said the problems she’s facing are industry-wide, and she doesn’t believe they will level out until next year. As for labor shortage issues, Hatley that’s a more existential problem that won’t be solved anytime soon.

“In the next two to three years, the hospitality industry as a whole, nationally, is going to have a challenge with being able to recruit,” Hatley said. “We’ve been seeing it come, but it’s really here now, and we’re going to have to get creative. … What the answer is to that, I’m not exactly sure.”

Doug OFlaherty, the vice president of operations for the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, said hotel rates have been shooting up across the state and aren’t necessarily unique to Myrtle Beach.

Looking beyond labor and supply problems, OFlaherty said the pent-up demand to travel after more than a year of pandemic lockdowns has driven up prices. Some hotels, he said, might also be charging higher rates to recoup last year’s losses, but most of the rates are going toward covering those increased base costs.

Nevertheless, OFlaherty said he was still shocked to see how much hotels were charging in recent weeks. He echoed a sentiment being expressed by many tourism experts: Few expected vacation travel to come back as quickly or intensely as it has this spring and summer.

“I am taking a long weekend myself and going out of town, and I was flabbergasted at the hotel prices. I was just like, ‘Wow.’ I didn’t realize that hotel prices were going to be as expensive as they were,” OFlaherty said.

Making Myrtle Beach less affordable?

Greene, Hatley and OFlaherty said that while increased demand and rising labor and supply costs are making hotels more expensive in Myrtle Beach, that doesn’t necessarily mean the region is becoming less affordable.

“Everything is ticked up higher,” Green said. “But I think that people can still find that affordable side of it. We’re not seeing any dips in occupancy.”

In other words, he said, higher hotel rates aren’t driving away customers.

If anything, hotel occupancy has actually risen at the same time that the average daily rate for a room has gone up.

Affordability in Myrtle Beach has long been measured as a comparison to other destinations, OFlaherty said. So long as Myrtle Beach stays cost as much or less than similar destinations, it will continue to draw travelers looking for a “cheap vacation.”

“Myrtle Beach can remain an affordable destination with rates that are here today because their competitors are charging the same rates,” OFlaherty said.

However, even if things like the cost of linens go back down in 2022, or labor becomes cheaper, OFlaherty said it’s unlikely hotels will lower their rates.

Some hotels might try to drive demand with lower rates during slower seasons but definitely not during the spring or summer next year. OFlaherty likened it to the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline. While gasoline has become much more available since the pipeline came back on in May, companies have not lowered the price of gasoline — or pumped more oil — because they know people will pay a those higher prices.

“That pipeline is running like it’s never run before. But have the prices going down? No, not at all. Why? Because we got used to it,” OFlaherty said. “The hotel market is no different.”

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Chase Karacostas writes about tourism in Myrtle Beach and across South Carolina for McClatchy. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2020 with degrees in Journalism and Political Communication. He began working for McClatchy in 2020 after growing up in Texas, where he has bylines in three of the state’s largest print media outlets as well as the Texas Tribune covering state politics, the environment, housing and the LGBTQ+ community.