BILL MILESThis year, Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler magazine released the results of their World’s Best awards and their readers once again voted Hilton Head Island the No. 1 island in the U.S. It’s a coveted award, voted upon by savvy travelers who know a good thing when they see it. Bluffton has also received its fair share of accolades and “best of” honors as people discover its unique charm and way of life. 

I often wish residents could see the Lowcountry through the eyes of our guests. We talk to hundreds of visitors every year at the chamber and they are captivated by the extraordinary beauty of the place we call home. We often become immune to that beauty as residents. 

People travel for thousands of miles to spend a single week in a place they find so beautiful and full of character. They can’t wait to get back — and some even do it permanently. 

We surveyed our community this year and found that over 80 percent of us were once visitors before we made the island our permanent home. Some residents are ready to roll up the welcome mat after they move to the island. They’ve found their slice of paradise and aren’t happy about sharing it with the world. 

It’s easy to complain and even easier to forget that many of the amenities we enjoy are brought to us by visitors. 

Has it been an unusual year for Lowcountry tourism? Yes, it has. Pent-up demand for travel was real and that brought more visitors this summer, especially those staying in our homes and villas. Through September, island occupancy was up 28.7 percent this year over the 2020 pandemic year. 

That pent-up demand brought more day-trippers this year to Coligny Beach. It’s not surprising that people from Pooler, Bluffton and beyond, looking for a day at the beach, head our way in larger numbers than ever before. Kudos to the town for their effort to begin charging for beach parking and enforcing illegal parking regulations. It’s just one of the ways we can create manageable crowds at our island’s most popular beach access. 

The chamber is tasked with marketing the Lowcountry and we’ve always believed in quality over quantity. Tourism is the number one driver of real estate and property values. Our environment is worth protecting, in fact, woe to us if we don’t continue to make it a priority. 

Visitors drive our Lowcountry economy. Small businesses are thriving, and they deserve our support and patronage year-round. 

The chamber hosted over 50 ribbon cuttings this year. Even during challenging times, entrepreneurship is alive and well in the Lowcountry. 

Bluffton is thriving with new construction and businesses. The Culinary Institute of the South at Technical College of the Lowcountry will be a game changer for workforce development. Research shows that over 70 percent of their students will remain in the Lowcountry to launch their careers. 

Are there challenges? Absolutely. Are we facing issues like workforce shortages, managing growth in Bluffton, and traffic woes during the summer season? Yes. We are not unlike hundreds of communities all over the country that are dealing with the same things. The pent-up demand for travel has communities juggling several challenges, but we’ve never shied away from finding solutions, in many cases, setting the example that other communities follow. 

Fall and winter are traditionally the seasons that we all love as residents. The pace of life slows down with the busy summer visitor season behind us. 

It’s a great time to enjoy Bluffton and our beautiful island. 

Bill Miles is President and CEO of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.