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Bruce Smith)., Associated Press
In this photograph taken March 7, 2012, visitors walk along the ocean front board walk in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Tourism officials say that occupancy at the beach resort could approach 90 percent this Easter weekend.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The good news is that while gas prices are higher this Easter than last year, the prices South Carolinians are paying at the pump are among the lowest in the nation. The other good news is that high gas prices elsewhere can mean more hotel and motel beds filled in a state where tourism is a $15 billion industry.

As South Carolinians take to the road for Easter and spring break vacations this weekend, they will find gas costing about 15 cents more than last year at this time.

But still, according to AAA, regular gas was selling for an average of $3.73 a gallon on Thursday, the same as in Missouri and Oklahoma. Only the $3.71 a gallon gas in Utah was cheaper.

Last winter, officials with the motor club predicted that gas might reach $4 a gallon gas in South Carolina by now. That hasn't happened and crude inventories have increased in recent weeks, cushioning the steady recent rise in gasoline prices.

Gas could hit $4 a gallon in North Carolina later this month. Much of the difference between the prices in the two states is the higher gas tax in North Carolina, said AAA spokeswoman Cathy Hein.

Although making predictions can be tricky, she said the national average could peak around $4.15 a gallon this summer and at that level, it may not rise above $4 in South Carolina. According to AAA's Fuel Gauge report, the highest average price on record in South Carolina was $4.12 a gallon in September of 2008.

"Four dollars is the psychological point where people alter travel plans," she said. "Until we get to $4 people will stick to their summer travel plans. If they have planned a longer trip down to Florida, once it gets to $4 that's when they start thinking a little closer to home and changing their travel plans."

While people will be driving this weekend, they usually stay closer to home and don't travel as far as they might on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, she said.

Higher prices in other states can mean more people coming to South Carolina.

Coastal Carolina University researcher Taylor Demonte, who tracks tourism trends, said that in the Myrtle Beach area, as fuel costs rise, so too, does hotel occupancy.

"I'm not saying it is causal but it certainly is an indication there is not a reverse relationship, that an increase in fuel prices causes occupancy to go down," he said.

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He said the reason is unclear but it may be that as fuel costs rise, and with it the cost of airplane travel to more distant destinations, vacationers choose to go to places closer to home.

"Traditionally, when transportation prices increase regional destinations like Myrtle Beach do better relative to long-haul destinations," he said. That allows vacationers to spend the same amount of time off but do it for less.

He says he expects occupancy in the Myrtle Beach area to approach 90 percent this weekend similar to Easter weekend visitation before the Great Recession.