MYRTLE BEACH, .S.C (WBTW) — COVID-19 restrictions made a lot of people rethink what to do with their time, and the answer led thousands outside to discover South Carolina’s state parks.

“Whatever problems you think you got, they kind of go away,” photographer Jim O’Neil said. “You listen to the sounds of the birds and the sea and the ocean waves crashing and you just relax.”

O’Neil is no stranger to South Carolina’s coastal state parks. In fact, they set the scene for some of his most dramatic photos of our local coastline, marshes and wildlife.

“The creator Mother Nature puts things out there for you to take a picture of, so I do. People from around the world come to see this,” he explained.

And right now, that’s the phenomenon happening behind his lens. He’s noticed more people visiting Myrtle Beach State Park and Huntington Beach State Park since the start of the pandemic — and he’s right. The numbers back up his observation.

South Carolina State Parks generated a record $45 million in revenue this past fiscal year – something South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism leaders tout as “very busy” and “very successful.”

“Almost every weekend of summer starting in May, at least one day a week, we were closing the gates for an hour or two because we had reached full capacity,” said Myrtle Beach State Park Ranger Ann Wilson.

SCPRT leaders tell News13 Myrtle Beach became the first park ever to generate $6 million in a fiscal year – totaling $6,125,131. In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Huntington Beach State Park generated an additional $5.5 million.

“Myrtle Beach State Park is well over a million visitors a year,” Wilson said. “And it’s still a well-kept secret, if you can call it that. I think you feel some of the weight of the world just washing away from you, because nature really is a great place for your mind, body and soul to just center yourself and calm yourself.”

Since the start of the 2021-2022 fiscal year, occupancy at Huntington has topped 97%, while Myrtle Beach has hovered just below 92%.

“We really haven’t stopped since May of last year. It can’t get any busier, right? And then it does,” Wilson said.

SCPRT leaders don’t anticipate the movement to get outside slowing down any time soon; however, they have to respond to the impact the influx of visitors is having at the state’s 47 parks. That’s why the agency has requested $14 million in ARP funding to fix excessive wear and tear at its parks and simply “catch up.”

“We were way behind on deferred maintenance before COVID,” explained South Carolina Park Director Paul McCormack. “So our roads and infrastructure that was old and needing repairs is just getting more heavily used and abused right now.”

McCormack also says the state recognizes that times are changing, and the infrastructure that worked when it was installed –some of it in the 1970s — simply needs upgraded. He added state parks are “self-sufficient” and operate off of the revenue it generates. He says the system does not receive state funding for operational purposes.

“We’re hoping to expand and improve infrastructure to make sure we can meet the demands of the future and also the expectations of the future, because today’s campers and users have a different expectation than those in the 1970s,” he explained.

The infrastructure and desired features include everything from stronger power, more campsites and capacity, better WI-FI, upgraded bathrooms, and staff. McCormack says the agency is also looking for ways to find other outdoor spaces that people can go — including its Black River Project.

“We’re very proud that we’ve managed … to get to the point where we’re not asking the legislature for money for operating dollars each year,” he said. “This $14 million will allow us to protect that by not only increasing the revenue stream by adding sites to it, but also maintaining and upgrading the facilities we have.”

O’Neil thinks those small upgrades to already strong facilities could continue to draw more families back to nature year after year. He doesn’t see this “pandemic trend” slowing down too much anytime soon, either.

“The parks do need more money to rebuild and to get everything back up to normal, because this is going to be awhile,” he said.

State lawmakers will decide ARP funding allocations later this fall, according to local state leaders.