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An Ersatz Escape: Myrtle Beach and the American Vacation

Photo Credit: Hollywood Wax Entertainment

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, sometimes called “Dirty Myrtle,” is a vacation destination appealing to families and college students alike.  You can stay at any one of a dozen oceanfront resort hotels—all in a row, with practically nothing but the name and color scheme changed—or a small rental home, indistinguishable from the n others on AirBnB.  While you’re there, you can attend your choice of handfuls of themed mini golf courses—pirates and jungles and dinosaurs, etc.  Then you can round off your day of sitting on the beach by swinging by one of the gift shops, which are themselves a destination, and eat at a restaurant serving either seafood or barbeque, or both, depending on how you’re feeling.

This assortment of barely distinguishable options reflects the economic concept of Hotelling’s law, or the “law of minimal differentiation.”  While this aptly describes the placement of near-identical commodities in Myrtle, viz. hotels, the phenomenon is actually named after Harold Hotelling, a statistician and economist.  The law explains that competitors marketing similar products will have the best success when the commodities are placed right next to each other.  Are you going to have a markedly different vacation experience whether you stay at the Hampton Inn or the DoubleTree?  Probably not, but the hotels are counting on vacationers’ previous brand loyalty, mild amenity versus cost preferences, ease of booking, and—you guessed it—location, location, location to make a final choice.  Like the other repeat commodities, because of the mass availability, people can trust that the product is something worth spending money on—if there are so many mini golf courses, it must be because they are worth visiting—and even if one company loses a few customers to the one across the street, supply and demand will allow it to even out and enable all the competitors to win.

National Geographic opines that “[u]napologetically paved over by golf courses, strip malls, water parks, and concrete high-rises, Myrtle Beach is ‘the definition of unsustainable.’ The state parks in its vicinity are worth a visit, however.”  The key word here is “unsustainable,” which speaks to the whole idea of the place.  If Myrtle were to become a sustainable, universally desirable, glossy vacation destination, it would not be Myrtle Beach, and its current audiences would no longer be able to afford to visit it, nor would they probably want to.  The image of Myrtle is part of the cost of going, whether a vacationer sees that as a good or a bad thing.  And since it is a place so spoiled by tourism and grime, there is less of an expectation of good behavior—there is no need to worry about tainting what is already tainted.  It’s an open invitation to consume in all manners, without guilt.

Thus, the experience of visiting Myrtle Beach is made cultureless and location-agnostic.  There are many of the same activities as are present in any number of other vacation spots; Myrtle has its own Ferris Wheel, Medieval Times, Ripley’s Aquarium, and more.  If you simply copied and pasted attractions from the top destinations in North America, what you would end up with would be Myrtle Beach.  The point of a vacation is often to have the nebulous “get away,” and Myrtle doesn’t really feel like it’s anywhere—but for most people, it’s vastly different from home, and what more could you really ask?

While the idea of a vacation is often linked with a location, Myrtle Beach could practically be anywhere.  As long as it has a beach, it wouldn’t really matter.  Sure, the place is important to the appeal and identity of Myrtle, but the location is rather superfluous.  The location is most important to who decides to travel there.  For example, Duke undergraduates; located one state over, it can be driven to or easily reached otherwise and provides all the wanted amenities for a post-semester getaway.  The other big group of interest, families, may choose to travel there for different reasons, but it is easily driven to from much of the eastern half of the United States, and the overarching positive of the place is that it is cheap and that it is elsewhere from home.

The infrastructure itself is cheap and unapologetically so.  The way the buildings are arranged downtown feels like a lot full of trucks parked in compact car spaces.  Plus, traffic is continually congested in the tourist seasons, making traveling anywhere that cannot be reached on foot rather a pain.  In the 50s, a hurricane destroyed many of the buildings and catalyzed a new boom of the building of tourist attractions, like hotels and golf courses.  This speaks more broadly to the appeal of a vacation there—it’s a duct tape type of fix.  A middle-class family can afford their one week at the beach a year, scratching that itch to get away, but in doing so prevents themselves from saving that money to possibly spend on something “better.”  It’s an impulsive sort of place, where many go to indulge in vices—alcohol, partying, sex, shopping, eating—or just push away the problems and worries of life for a while.

In his essay about the Illinois State Fair, David Foster Wallace theorizes that perhaps people for whom everyday life is already overstimulating—such as those who live in cities—prefer to take trips that are quiet escapes, like to the mountains, whereas those—such as Midwesterners—who are more spread out and see fewer people on a daily basis, enjoy going to crowded, noisy places like the State Fair.  While Myrtle is a beach, it’s not a vacation someone is going to pick for the sole purpose of relaxing and getting a lot of alone time—and if it is, I question how successful they will be.  In my own experience, seeing rural Ohioans and bubble-dwelling Duke students flock to Myrle when summer comes, it tracks that Myrtle is more a place to visit and experience than to escape to.  It ticks the boxes of what a domestic American vacation should be, so the rest doesn’t really matter.

The first vacation, popularized by Boston preacher William H. H. Murray, was an escape to the Adirondack Mountains of New York from the “disease-ridden” city.  It was meant to be a time of reflection and a break from the hustle and bustle of the dirty, noisy business of urban life.  This follows Wallace’s theory of what an “escape” constitutes for different types of people.  Perhaps a distinction must be made between an “escape to” and an “escape from.”  Now that our country has a lot more diversity regarding the types of places in which people live, vacations have come to mean vastly different things for different people.  Some people escape from their hectic lives in the city to visit someplace nature-y, like the Grand Canyon.  Others escape to the hustle and bustle of cities or big attractions when that hyperstimulation is missing from their lives.

But breaking this into a city dweller versus country bumpkin issue is too binary.  NBC reported some surveyed distinctions between the vacations of conservatives and liberals.  For example, liberals were more likely to travel internationally or visit places like Denver, New York, and Seattle, whereas conservatives were more likely to engage in activities like fishing or golf and go to cities in the Great Plains.  I don’t think there’s some sort of exact formula for home location + political party + financial situation that determines where someone goes on vacation, but these factors are clearly inextricable from the many decisions Americans make every year for how to holiday.  Even among beaches, there appears to be a difference between the secluded pristine and the tourist trap; or a historically enriching idea of a trip could be different based on your opinions on politics.  And maintaining the proper image vis-à-vis the groups in which you frequent seems like a funnily stressful side effect of a phenomenon that created to induce relaxation.

And there’s no reason that the benefits of your vacation need be boxed into the temporal confines of the trip itself.  If you feel the need to remind people of your past travels or just want to remind yourself that there is something beyond the daily monotony of life, you can just buy a t-shirt that says Myrtle Beach—or a sweatshirt, or a beach towel, or a seashell, you get the idea.  At Myrtle, there are enormous, famous gift shops and shopping centers that have become attractions to visit as one might a natural wonder or historical monument.  Sprawling, multi-storied, filled with every piece of kitsch that you could possibly stick the words “Myrtle Beach” on, these places can literally get paid to freely advertise their locale.  And much of the goods you find in a gift shop are themselves cheap and mass-produced—an accurate representation of the place itself—an ersatz alternative to a more desirable or sustainable option.

Beyond the myriad t-shirts and hoodies and shot glasses and personalized hermit crabs to memorialize your trip to the beach, there exists the social currency of a digital recollection.  It need not even be said that the Instagramability of a location is an important factor in choosing to travel there on vacation.  The tangible output becomes more important than the intangible experiences of spending time together with family or friends in a new environment.  Your Facebook or Instagram friends have no idea whether you spent hours yelling at each other or got a horrendous sunburn or have an awful hangover when you just post the pictures of everyone smiling.  The digital traces act as proof of having fun, regardless of the extent to which said fun exists and extend the trip into the location of the digital realm.

Further, Myrtle Beach, or the type of vacation to which you drive and sort of just soak up your surroundings, has a sense of passivity that almost feels political.  Traveling to another country for cultural or linguistic immersion or to a historical landmark or natural wonder has a tinge of liberalism to it.  The privilege to travel somewhere and actively learn and engage with something different than your normal.  Myrtle, on the other hand, is just more of the same.  It’s distinctly American in the types of activities in which a tourist can engage and it’s not trying to be anything more than it is.

It represents a bigger phenomenon for middle-class Americans.  Not having the funds to frequently engage in the best of all possible anythings, ersatz stopgaps, like a week at the beach every year, provide a temporary salve on the desire to have a much-deserved break from work and life, but are clearly not as elaborate or fancy as some of the options on the market.  Especially for middle-class people, toiling away at jobs they may not necessarily enjoy, a week of vacation feels like something they deserve, or are entitled to, as a member of such a wealthy country.  If you spend so much time on work and the other necessities of life, if you don’t receive the payout of a tangible reward, then what’s the point of it all?  And when you live somewhere that isn’t a quick drive to the coast or filled with natural wonders, the monotony can start to get to you.

It’s an easy choice, for many people, to go someplace like Myrtle.  It’s been traveled to death; planning a trip there can be as easy as picking an accommodation and deciding whether to eat out or cook your own meals.  There’s always the beach, and if that’s not enough, there’s a slew of other activities from which to choose.  The place itself has become a consumable item.  You can just choose to go there, and the rest is simple.  Because the concept of a vacation is desirable to Americans, and Myrtle Beach is a clear and obvious example of one, it’s easy.  It’s reliable too, regardless of the semantics, the experience is going to roughly be the same from year to year and person to person.  It’s consistent, but that doesn’t mean it’s consistently good, and maybe it doesn’t need to be.

Maybe, rather than where exactly it is, it matters more who sees Myrtle as a desirable location.  And personal identity is heavily influenced by geography.  A lot of Americans feel some sort of affinity towards where they live or grew up—even if it may be negative.  Already, America continues to become more and more polarized, especially with the influx of social media algorithms and geographic self-selection.  So much so that not only do we not need to interact with people who are much different from us on a daily basis—whether in person or online—but, even where we go on vacation becomes a manifestation of our affinities and identities.  Perhaps places like Myrtle become havens for those with whom public opinion looks upon with disdain.  It is a place that appeals to those who are often derogatorily referred to as uneducated, poor white people.  While a harmful label, the fact that even vacations become an “us vs. them” distinction signals a deeper harmful phenomenon.  For the elite college student, the stopgap it serves is temporary, a fact of not yet having a well-paying job.  And for the rest, it’s probably the best they’re going to get.


  1. “Coastal Destinations Rated — National Geographic Traveler.” Travel, 20 Oct. 2010,
  2. “Hotelling’s Law.” Oxford Reference, Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.
  3. Magazine, Smithsonian, and Tony Perrottet. “Where Was the Birthplace of the American Vacation?” Smithsonian Magazine, Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.
  4. Myrtle Beach Area History & Local Folklore | VisitMyrtleBeach.Com. Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.
  5. “Worlds Apart: Liberals and Conservatives Even Vacation Differently.” NBC News, Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.