The coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia are currently experiencing profound changes in economy and business. The rice crop moved offshore in the late 1800s and the center of the cotton trade moved to the Gulf states in the early 1900s. That left timber as the main cash crop all up and down the coast, specifically huge pine tree farms to feed the pulp and paper business.
For most of the 20th century, the largest employers along the coast were the massive, sulfur-smelling paper mills of companies like Union Camp and Georgia Pacific, which had as big an effect on the local environment as on its economy. But even that’s changing, as Asian competition is driving paper companies to sell off their tracts for real estate development—not necessarily a more welcome scenario.
Since World War II, the U.S. Department of Defense has been a major employer and economic driver in the entire South, and the Georgia and South Carolina coast is no exception. Of the services, the U.S. Navy (which includes the Marines) is the dominant military presence in coastal South Carolina, employing over 16,000 military and civilian workers. Coastal Georgia tends to be more Army-dominated.
Despite the closing of the Charleston Naval Yard in the mid-1990s, the grounds now host the East Coast headquarters of SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center), which provides high-tech engineering solutions for the Navy. Charleston  also retains a large military presence in the Charleston Air Force Base near North Charleston , which hosts two airlift wings and employs about 6,000.
Farther down the coast, Beaufort is home to the Naval Hospital Beaufort and the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and its six squadrons of FA-18 Hornets. On nearby Parris Island, is the legendary Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, which puts all new Marine recruits from east of the Mississippi River through rigorous basic training.
In the middle of southside Savannah  sits Hunter Army Airfield, host to a battalion of U.S. Army Rangers. In nearby and largely rural Liberty County , Georgia, is the sprawling Fort Stewart, home base of the 3rd Infantry Division. Near the Florida border in St. Marys is the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, home port of eight Trident subs.
These defense facilities combine to bring billions of dollars into the local economy in payroll alone, not to mention the ancillary spending (home-buying, renting, etc.) that goes with it. However, the defense dollar has a downside: When large numbers of troops are deployed on repeat tours of duty, as with the war in Iraq, local economies suffer along with the troops’ families.
Of course, tourism is also an important factor in the local economies of the area, particularly in seasonal, resort-oriented areas like Hilton Head, Kiawah , and Seabrook Islands . Though they have very diversified economies, Charleston  and Savannah  both increasingly rely on the tourist dollar as well.
The Holy City in particular has a well-honed tourist infrastructure, bringing at least $5 billion a year into the local economy. Savannah’s tourism industry, though growing, is still behind Charleston’s at less than $2 billion a year.
But even more than the tourist boom, by far the biggest economic news of modern times has been the exponential growth of local seaports. Of course, the entire coast from Charleston to Brunswick has been dependent on maritime trade since its settlement. But from the 1990s on, the quickened pace of globalization has brought enormous investment, volume, and expansion to area port facilities.
Both the Charleston and Savannah ports experienced record volume in 2006–2007. After years of trying, the port of Savannah finally caught up with Charleston in 2007 to become not only the fastest-growing American port, but the fourth-busiest in the country.
Indeed, despite all other trends, manufacturing and industry remain the largest sectors of the economy in both Charleston and Savannah—due in no small part to the fact that both South Carolina and Georgia are “right to work” states with exceedingly low unionization rates.
Increasingly, however, higher education is more and more important to local economies, and will only continue to be so. For their size, Charleston and Savannah have impressive institutions of learning, almost all of which are growing in enrollment and endowment.
In Charleston , the Medical University of South Carolina is not only the city’s largest employer but is growing in importance as a key national bioscience research center. In the liberal arts, the College of Charleston  is known for excellence, especially its nationally renowned music program. The American College of the Building Arts works to educate new generations of artisans, with some classes held at the Old City Jail downtown. Clemson University also has a strong agricultural research presence in Charleston.
The University of South Carolina Beaufort, on a beautiful campus near the historic downtown, is not only increasing its enrollment as the state’s newest four-year facility, but has even opened a satellite campus in little Bluffton.
Savannah ’s higher education scene is best known for the Savannah College of Art and Design, a private institution that is one of the nation’s largest art schools and the downtown area’s main restorer of old buildings. But another local institution worth mentioning is the rapidly growing Armstrong Atlantic State University, possibly the best education buy in the country. In addition, the University of Georgia maintains a strong marine research presence in Savannah at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, and the Georgia Institute of Technology has recently opened a satellite campus in Savannah’s new high-tech corridor near the airport off I-95.