Gasoline prices hit $3.41 Tuesday in the Palmetto State, up 22 cents a gallon from last month and 44 cents from the same time last year, according to AAA Carolinas.
And experts say gas prices might hit $4 a gallon as more motorists hit the roads for Memorial Day weekend in May — the “unofficial” start of summer — and drive up demand. It’s a threshold not flirted with since last spring.
The spike in prices could have a two-fold effect on the state’s tourism: Fewer people might travel from other states to South Carolina beaches, parks and mountains; but, more South Carolinians may stay closer to home for their spring and summer outings.
“Rising prices don’t affect travel as much as you think,” said AAA Carolinas spokeswoman Cathy Hein. “If it’s a matter of feeding your family or going on a trip, then you are going to feed your family. But if people decide to go somewhere they are going to make the trip even if gas prices are higher.”
Marion Edmonds, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said in some ways, higher gas prices can benefit the state.
People in Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states “might decide to drive shorter distances,” he said. “Instead of driving to Florida, they might spend time on our coast.”
Also, in-state residents lean toward “stay-cations” during hard times, Edmonds said, and reservations at state park campgrounds, cabins, villas and hotel rooms tend to go up.
“But our experience is that the type of gas prices currently being talked about aren’t rising to the level to present serious problems,” he said.
Nationally, the average price paid by drivers was $3.52, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, up just over 4 cents from a week ago. And some averages in U.S. cities are even higher, particularly in California, where prices this week are fast closing in on $4 per gallon.
South Carolina’s prices are lower — some of the lowest in the nation, in fact — because of the low taxes tacked on at the pump. South Carolina’s gas taxes amount to roughly 16.8 cents a gallon, Hein said, compared with 39.3 cents in neighboring North Carolina.
In addition to demand, some unknowns will keep prices driving up, experts say. Chief among them are tensions in the Middle East, where Iran has threatened to shut off the Straits of Hormuz, through which flows 20 percent of the world’s oil, Hein said, and other oil-producing areas such as Libya are still in turmoil.
Also, a tax credit for ethanol used to blend into gas expired Jan. 1, which could boost prices.
But, with the overall economic picture seeming a bit brighter, travelers may decide to go ahead and spend the money on trips, despite the higher prices.
Hein noted that holiday travel in South Carolina was up 3 percent despite rising gas prices.
“Everyone is hoping that the economy improves and things stabilize,” she said.