Harley rally numbers up, but far short of peak years

The spring Harley Rally is shifting into high gear around the Grand Strand.

Organizers say attendance is up from last year, with about 125,000 bikers expected to show up before it's over May 19.

That may sounds like a lot, but it's not nearly the number from years past, and many question whether that size rally will ever come back.

At SBB Biker Bar in Murrells Inlet, business so far during the rally far exceeds what the owners expected.

"We're up 2-to-300 percent on the first weekend," said general manager Bill Barber.

Barber says he sees more bikers this year coming from states like Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania, and they are ready for good riding weather.

"I think they're just tired of that winter and want to come down and then finally get some wind in their face."

Hotel occupancy is up for the Harley rally, too.

Tourism officials say vacation rentals next week are expected to be up about 12 to 13 percent over last year.

"In the 7 day rentals, we've seen a really strong showing over the last six weeks and we continue to see that in the reservations over the next couple of weeks," said Taylor Damonte, of Coastal Carolina University's Center for Resort Tourism.

Damonte says it's hard to say whether occupancy is back up to where it was pre-recession. There are too many factors to consider, like more available rooms than 6 to 8 years ago.

Barber says this could be the biggest Harley rally since before the city of Myrtle Beach's failed attempt to ban helmets in 2008.

But he says the super-sized rallies of past years, with attendance of 300,000 bikers or more, are probably gone for good.

"I don't think we'll ever reach that with the economy the way it is," said Barber. "It's just gas prices and everything else. I don't think we'll ever get to that, but we're certainly building towards it."

He says there are some events this year tied to the 75th anniversary of the rally and those are also attracting a bigger crowd.

The Harley rally is the second oldest in the country, after a rally in New Hampshire that's more than 90 years old.