Tourist trap or legitimate business strategy?

The visitor center pictured above is not the official Charleston visitor center. (WCIV)

CHARLESTON, S.C (WCIV) -- The picturesque city of Charleston was recently named the top travel destination in America, but could the Holy City's tourism industry have a dark side?

Pay-offs, unwanted solicitation and overzealous sales pitches for time shares and vacation clubs are just some of the allegations being levied against those{}so called "visitor information" booths.

City administrators and those that depend on those coveted tourist dollars say it needs to end.

Over four million people make their way to Charleston historic streets every year, but Charleston's tourism industry, one of the most regulated in the country, is fighting back against what many call a misleading sales strategy -- unwarranted sales pitches from travel clubs and timeshare companies. {}

They appear on some of the cities most popular streets -- standing in store fronts, advertising visitor information.

"The top three things are carriage rides, Fort Sumter and Magnolia Plantation. Those are three things most people do," one employee said.

They will try and entice out-of-towners with discount tours and tickets. But once inside, the friendly and courteous employees begin the hard sell -- among the products, timeshares and travel club memberships. {}

Phyllis Katzen, owner of Doin' the Charleston Tours says the imposter ambassadors are costing her and legitimate tourism companies money.

"What they've done is put up store fronts and they have themselves promoted as tourist destination centers," she said.

After numerous complaints this past April, Charleston City Council passed an ordinance requiring the information booths properly identify themselves with signage. Employees have been banned from approaching tourists on sidewalks.

Mayor Joe Riley called the practice deceptive. He said it casts the city in a bad light.

"People left Charleston thinking the City of Charleston was in the business of selling time shares because they went into a place they thought was an official visitor's center," Riley said.

Katzen claims the companies go much farther, accepting pay-offs, putting out false information and intentionally taking business from tour companies that won't pay up.

"They (tourists) are told we are a horrible company because we are not doing business with them," she said.

Katzen said the issue is costing her as much as 20 percent of her daily business. And while the city is cracking down, Katzen said the deceptive practice continues.

"All of my tour guides are licensed, they have to pass a test to work for us," she said. The city should have some kind of licensing process for them as well"

To avoid an unwanted sales pitch, city leaders say the only officially operated and regulated visitors center is located at 375 meeting street downtown.

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