History, landmarks and culture might come to mind when looking at the tourist industry, but a new service wants to put a unique spin on the traditional tour model by focusing on something else Aiken has to offer: food.
"We love food," said Sandy Petsch of Aiken Bites and Sites. "We love traveling. We've gone to a lot of food tours, and we just enjoy it."
Petsch co-owns Aiken Bites and Sites with her husband, Bill Ferris. They held Aiken's first food tour in the downtown area last Saturday.
Their tour featured stops at Betsy's Round the Corner, City Billiards, Taj Aiken Indian Cuisine, Cyndi's Sweet Shoppe, Tailgate Tavern, High Country Oils and Aiken Ice Cream.
"It's a good way to enjoy the area and experience the food, because when you visit a place, you don't go to five or six different restaurants," Petsch said. "This way you can visit a bunch of restaurants, get a sample, and if you like it, you can go back."
Businesses like Aiken Bites and Sites are becoming increasingly common as the state's tourism industry continues to grow. In 2018, South Carolina's tourism industry set a record-breaking year, becoming worth $22.6 billion and accounting for one out of every ten jobs in the state's workforce, according to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
While a significant portion of this growth is concentrated around big cities and coastal communities, small towns have benefited as well.
According to information provided by the city of Aiken Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, 14,992 visitors came to the Aiken Visitor's Center as of June 13 – up nearly 2,000 visitors from the previous fiscal year.
According to Tourism Supervisor Mary Rosbach, the department's market mostly focuses on the five-hour drive market from Aiken, which includes areas such as Atlanta, Charlotte and Jacksonville. Rosbach said in an email that the department cross-promotes events for Aiken with the Aiken Downtown Development Association on social media channels.
The Aiken Downtown Development Association (ADDA) has been promoting industry in South Carolina's tourism bump. The ADDA started a downtown shuttle service called Free Loader. According to ADDA Executive Director Haley Knight, the shuttle service currently averages about 50 customers a day, with a goal set for 200 customers a day.
"Younger generations love experiences," said Knight in an email. "I think Aiken is doing a great job of incorporating new opportunities for new experiences. From food and bike tours to public art projects, live music events and more, I think we are moving in the right direction as a community and have a lot to offer those that visit."
Other kinds of tours that take place downtown include Pedego Electric Bikes and Tailored Tours of Aiken. Rebel Ranch Horse Tours show visitors Hitchcock Woods.
"Aiken has many wonderful local restaurants and sites for visitors to enjoy," said J. David Jameson, president of the Aiken Chamber of Commerce, in an email. "It is exciting to see the growth in the established tours and to see new small businesses developing. These tour-related businesses make it easier for guests to experience Aiken and understand that Aiken is truly unique. If you’re lucky enough to live in Aiken, you’re lucky enough."
In 2015, the City of Aiken began collecting a one percent hospitality tax on prepared meals and beverages sold in food and beverage establishments in the city of Aiken. The revenue collected from the tax goes toward visitor and tourism related expenditures, such as the upkeep of Citizen's Park.
Revenue from the tax has been close to estimated amounts. Revenue collected from the Hospitality Tax for the month of May exceeded estimated revenue, according to the City of Aiken's website.
As for Aiken Bites and Sites, Petsch and Ferris simply wish to share their love of food with others in the Aiken community.
"We're foodies," said Bill Ferris. "We love food, and what could be wrong with that?"